The National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH), a national nonprofit organization based in Columbia, has launched a study to assess the public health impact of the proposed Baltimore-Washington Rail Intermodal Facility.
The organization is working with partners across Maryland, including various state and local health, transportation and planning agencies, as part of its effort to incorporate health considerations into land-use planning decisions in the state.
The project is supported by a $125,000 grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
The study will consider each of the four candidate sites proposed by CSX and the Maryland Department of Transportation in Elkridge (Race and Hanover Roads), Jessup (one near the Jessup Correctional Facility, another near Montevideo Road) and Beltsville (near the Agricultural Research Center).
Approximately 40 residents attended a forum hosted by NCHH at the Elkridge Senior Center on March 21 to discuss the study and provide input. Two additional forums in Beltsville and Jessup drew approximately 15 attendees each.
According to an NCHH release, the facility poses potential health concerns to neighboring communities that include air and noise pollution, as well as substantial increases in local truck traffic, leading to safety risks.
“Decisions about how goods are moved across the state and country are made every day,” said NCHH Executive Director Rebecca Morley. “Only in a few instances are those decisions looked at through the lens of public health.”
The goal, she said, is to use the findings and recommendations to improve both the consideration of health and the implementation of specific mitigation measures to protect health in the final project decisions being made by CSX and the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT).
Chief among the concerns raised at the Elkridge forum was noise, followed by air pollution issues and increased traffic volumes. At the forum, Howard County Councilwoman Courtney Watson (D-Dist. 1) said she would like to see NCHH factor in noise that could be expected during normal sleeping hours, “[particularly] the health impact of waking people up with intermittent noises.”
Residents also raised concerns about a potential decrease in property values and the stress of being unable to sell a home or of losing good neighbors who decide to move away rather than live in proximity to a 24-hour transloading operation.
The economic impact also raises concerns for residents. While such a facility could result in increased employment by generating new warehousing and manufacturing opportunities, fear was also expressed that potential businesses could choose not to locate near the facility, or that existing businesses could choose to move or be otherwise negatively impacted by the operation.
Although no air quality stations currently exist in Howard County, Ruth Lindberg, NCHH’s project manager for the Health Impact Assessment (HIA), said mobile air quality monitors and other means could be used to quantify the impact.
“The problem is that there’s no baseline now,” Lindberg said, suggesting that proxy data from other sites could be used instead. “One of the [study results] could be a recommendation to establish a monitoring station regardless of the final decision.”
The study will attempt to include the impact of simultaneous development projects near each of the sites, “but the sense is the scope would get unwieldy … and it wouldn’t be manageable to work that into the actual process,” Lindberg said.
At the Jessup forum, for example, residents were particularly concerned with the impact on specific intersections from the cumulative influence of the intermodal facility, Base Realignment and Closure gains and the Maryland Live! casino at Arundel Mills Mall.
The new study marks the NCHH’s first foray into HIAs. Originally founded in 1992 as the National Center for Lead Safe Housing, NCHH is now engaged in expanding its scope and mission to deal with neighborhood-level issues.
The Rail Intermodal Facility is providing a unique opportunity to explore that expansion in its own backyard. “The practice of HIA is just taking off in the United States,” Morley said, “but it’s widely practiced in Europe.”
NCHH is partnering with Human Impact Partners of San Francisco, a national authority on HIAs which is acting as a consultant on the project.
In Morley’s estimation, there is a growing need for Health Impact Assessments in Maryland.
“[It] can be practiced in a lot of different settings and could be used for the siting of housing projects, transit stations and any major land use and transportation planning decisions,” she said.
According to Lindberg, the study will result in a clear, synthesized report and technical document with analyses and a set of prioritized recommendations.
“The goal is to submit these through different channels,” she said. “Ideally, we’d like to see MDOT and CSX actually work in some of the health data into the report they are required to do for the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process.”
In the event that doesn’t happen, the report could still be submitted as evidence in the NEPA public comment process. “Anything that’s submitted as part of the public record then has to be considered and responded to, so there are different avenues through which it can go,” Lindberg said.
NCHH expects to complete the study by the end of the calendar year, but is prepared to move more quickly to match the pace of the Rail Intermodal Facility decision-making process.
The data collected in the study will be shared with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH), Morley said, and will also available to residents and to local communities for advocacy purposes.
“One of the things the health assessment can do is to challenge the assumptions that are made through other analyses,” Lindberg said, depending on the data available and the feasibility of reworking the data with existing models.
“Ideally we’d like to build a strong partnership with MDOT and the DHMH,” she said, “so that when the state is considering big facilities and proposals in the future, they think of incorporating an analysis of health at the outset.”