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A Sunday Ride in the Farms, and More Thoughts on the Beltsville CSX Truck Site Proposal

See the Beltsville farms (and the proposed CSX truck station) from your bike.

If you believe today’s forecast, Sunday Jan. 22 looks like it’s going to be warm — a great day for a winter bike ride in the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC). This group ride will start from Proteus bike shop in College Park at 1 p.m., take a rest stop at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge visitors center and return to the shop around 2:30 p.m. or 3 p.m. 

The distance is a little over 20 miles, and the pace will be moderate. We may split up into groups of faster or slower riders, but no riders will be dropped. As always, there will be cookies at the finish!

If you’d like to head over to the bike shop with us, we’ll be leaving from the in Old Greenbelt at 12:30 p.m. Here is a route map, and here is the announcement from the shop.

Next Sunday’s ride will take us past the proposed Beltsville site for a new CSX truck/rail transfer depot. The Maryland Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are advocating for a new CSX site south of Baltimore. The Beltsville site is one of four proposed locations.

I’ve been trying to figure out why MDOT is so gung-ho about this project. I can understand why the federal government is interested, and I understand why CSX wants the site. But it seems to me that MDOT should be presenting a more balanced view of the proposal, with both the pros and the cons. Instead, the state seems more like a cheerleader for this than a careful steward of both our transportation needs and our lands and quality of life.

The MDOT presentation (PDF) says the new site is necessary so that CSX can load double-stack rail container cars for shipments that originate at the Port of Baltimore and are headed throughout the southeastern states and south-central states. The southbound tunnel from the Port of Baltimore is not high enough for double-stack cars, and the state has deemed the cost of enlarging the tunnels as too high.

The Beltsville site proposal is a large wooded area bordered by the CSX tracks and Edmondston, Sunnyside and Powder Mill roads. The federal government owns the land as part of the BARC. The site is designated as a protected wetland.

In a , I noted the incongruity in the state’s efforts to clean up the Anacostia tributaries inside the beltway while also supporting a new industrial site on a wooded wetland site upriver!

This post questions why MDOT is so enthusiastic about this project. After attending a community open house sponsored by MDOT and CSX, I came away with more questions than answers.

At the open house, which was held in Beltsville last December, I expected to encounter plenty of CSX public relations and consultants touting the project. That makes sense. A new transfer yard will make their operations more efficient. They could run more double-stack container cars, and thereby get more freight on a given train.  

This would help CSX reduce its costs, which would, in turn, allow the company to better compete against other railroads or trucking companies. With the extra efficiency, CSX could either offer lower prices to attract more business, or enjoy higher profits on its current shipments.

I can also understand why the federal government is pushing this project. Getting container freight around the country cheaper is a probably a better outcome nationally. I understand the larger concept of trying to get more freight on to rails and off the roads.

However, I was left wondering why the state of Maryland was so enthusiastic about this project. After all, the freight is moving through our state, but the efficiency gains don’t necessarily accrue to us. Instead, most of the gain to CSX and/or to people in other states that get their container goods delivered more cheaply.

However, if the site were in Beltsville, with potentially hundreds (or even a thousand or more) trucks going through Greenbelt and Beltsville roads on their way from the transfer site to I-95, there are serious negatives to consider as well: 

  • more congestion and road damage;
  • more dangerous travel for cars and bikes on Edmonston Road, Sunnyside Avenue, and Powder Mill Road;
  • more smoke, dust and noise;
  • the widening of Edmonston Road into a truck route (which would be made inevitable instead of optional);
  • a degradation of BARC landscape and interference with their experiments;
  • lower property values in Beltsville and Greenbelt (nobody wants to live on a truck route);
  • less desireable business location for non-heavy industrial businesses, including a body blow for the idea of building an attractive, mixed-use development on the Greenbelt Metro site; and
  • worsened water quality on the Anacostia tributaries downstream from the extra road runoff.

We need to balance the pros and cons. At the Beltsville presentation, MDOT did a very poor job of conveying that they understood or even cared about both pros and cons of the project for residents of Maryland. Their presentation mentioned all the potential problems, but then seemed to dismiss them summarily. Instead, it felt like MDOT was as much an uncritical tout for the project as CSX, not a balanced steward of transportation proposals and residents’ quality of life!

In fact, the MDOT website looks like a hand-in-hand partnership with CSX. There’s no oppositional research shown, and no “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” sort of analysis. The state-funded economic analysis, which focused only on jobs created for construction and operation of the site mentions no negative impacts of the site at all! It would reduce truck trips (really?); it would create new jobs without causing any reductions elsewhere — for 30 years even!

Although I don’t have a state-funded economic study to tout, I’m pretty sure that hundreds or even thousands of additional trucks on the local roads would be terrible for our quality of life and would reduce local property values and the attractiveness of our area for business opportunities. The MDOT economic and environmental analysis didn't smell balanced or thorough — it smelled like a con job.

And maybe it’s a not-in-my-backyard attitude, but I really don’t care about getting imported goods to Kentucky or Tennessee at slightly lower cost. I’m not in Kentucky or Tennessee! I don’t see why our quality of life should suffer so that low-priced imported container goods can be slightly cheaper at Wallmarts or Sam’s Clubs throughout the southeastern states. I’m sorry, but they can pay a few pennies more for their stuff so that we can keep our local roads from being completely overrun with trucks.

And don’t get me started about taking trucks off the road and improving the environment. We’d have more trucks on the road here in Greenbelt, not less. If we want to improve the environment, we could take all the MDOT resources flowing into this ill-considered project and use the funds to build better bike lanes and trails — right here in Maryland!

If MDOT can find a suitable site for this project that doesn’t hurt the local quality of life or despoil the local environment, then fine. But the Beltsville site fails those tests.

Come ride with us on Sunday and decide for yourself!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jeff Lemieux January 21, 2012 at 03:16 PM
Well, last week's forecast for tomorrow (sunny and in the 50s) doesn't seem to be working out! I'll go ride the course early tomorrow morning to see if the shoulder sections are safely snow- and ice-free, and I'll report back around 10 or 11am.
Jeff Lemieux January 23, 2012 at 02:57 PM
A small, but hardy group braved the sub-freezing temps. It ended up being a great ride -- very peaceful out in the farms. You can see the proposed CSX site on the left between minutes 1 and 2 of these video clips, and then again ahead and on the right starting at about minute 8:40. -Jeff http://vimeo.com/35485466
Ben Fischler January 24, 2012 at 05:43 PM
Jeff stated that he is “left wondering why the state of Maryland was so enthusiastic about this project.” MDOT’s enthusiasm appears to be with trying to attract shipping business to the Port of Baltimore. Improvements to the Panama Canal will soon be bringing many more shiploads of containerized products to the East Coast. Without a workable rail connection, the Port of Baltimore will lose this business to other East Coast ports (http://www.mdot.maryland.gov/Planning/ICTF/Home.html#Background). Please do not get me wrong—I am against any construction on the proposed Beltsville site, for all the reasons you describe. I, too, am disappointed in the process that our state government is using to try to plan for a workable rail connection. We all need to ask some questions of Governor O’Malley. Why have obvious environmental issues been ignored during the initial site selection process? Why has the state not insisted on prioritizing the use of brown field sites closer to the Port of Baltimore? So far, opposition to the CSX/MDOT plans has been splintered between the four sites currently under consideration. Recently, Greenbelt City Council member Rodney Roberts has pointed out that a unified opposition is needed (see page 6 in http://www.greenbeltnewsreview.com/issues/GNR20111222.pdf). Can the various opposition groups and watershed protection groups band together to pressure Governor O’Malley on this?
Jeff Lemieux January 24, 2012 at 07:32 PM
Thanks Ben. This is the one line in the report that seems to specifically refer to benefits for Maryland: "A new intermodal facility will allow Baltimore, the State of Maryland, and the greater Baltimore-Washington region to participate in an emerging double-stack rail network and capture shipping-related jobs, business taxes, fees, and economic activity that might otherwise be diverted to competing ports and facilities in neighboring states." First of all we don't know the probability on "might." And the analysis doesn't consider the losses that would go with the potential gains. What about the possible decline in NON-shipping-related "jobs, business taxes, fees, and economic activity" that "might" occur in the Greenbelt, Laurel, College Park, Beltsville, and downstream communities due to the reduced quality of life in our region? Our areas benefit greatly from the BARC, both as an employer and an oasis of open space. We benefit from river improvements. Our communities would certainly lose tremendous value and be further divided by heavily trafficked truck routes. Ironically, if we hadn't spent to much on the ICC, we could probably have afforded to re-engineer the Baltimore tunnels. Then CSX could have all the space it wanted in the Baltimore port and industrial areas, where truck transfer stations belong. Tearing down a wooded preserve by a research farm would be crazy by comparison.

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