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D.C. hires firm to study rerouting hazardous cargo

(The following article by Tom Ramstack was posted on the Washington Times website on August 16.)

WASHINGTON -- The D.C. Department of Transportation has hired an engineering firm to evaluate the feasibility of building a rail route around the city for carrying hazardous materials.

Parsons Brinckerhoff was hired through a $1 million Department of Homeland Security grant to study the best route for the rail line and analyze benefits and costs in a report due by early next year.

"It's the first step in what would be a very big project," said David Zaidain, project manager for the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal government's planning agency for the Washington area, which is coordinating the efforts of groups involved in the rail line.

Options include building a rail line around the city, rerouting rail traffic onto existing freight lines or reactivating unused railroad rights of way that run north and south of Washington. No officials would speculate on the most likely option.

Although Mr. Zaidain declined to estimate a cost of the project, he said it would be safe to assume that it would exceed $1 billion.

"Clearly, the cost of upgrading an existing freight line that is more remote from the Capitol, White House and other agency headquarters would be substantial," said Rick Rybeck, D.C. Department of Transportation deputy administrator. "The cost of constructing a brand-new freight line might cost even more."

The rail line proposals are largely a response to concerns of the D.C. Council and the Homeland Security Department about the risk from terrorists' sabotaging tank cars with hazardous materials, unleashing deadly chemicals on Washington's population. Rail lines run less than a half-mile from the U.S. Capitol.

"A terrorist attack on a freight car with hazardous cargo, such as liquid chlorine, could kill thousands within a very short time and imperil the functioning of critical federal facilities," Mr. Rybeck said.

The D.C. Council enacted a ban in January 2005 on hazardous-material shipments within 2.2 miles of the Capitol. It was opposed by CSX Transportation, which owns the rail line through the District, in a lawsuit that is scheduled for a trial as soon as the fall. Meanwhile, rail shipments continue through the city, but the railroad says it has rerouted tank cars carrying chlorine.

Parsons Brinckerhoff is assessing options to replace freight traffic on the 7Ĺ-mile rail corridor that runs from the Virginia border near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport into the District, over the Anacostia River and into Maryland. Two miles of the line are shared by Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express for passenger service.

The impact on rail service in Maryland and Virginia has not been determined.

"Right now, we're in an information-gathering mode, awaiting the study results," said Kevin Page, rail-transportation director for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. "It's a little early to tell."

A new rail line could speed up freight and passenger-rail traffic through the Washington area and free up land currently used by CSX Transportation for urban development, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation.

"Several points along the CSX rail line near and within the District have been identified as major choke points for freight traffic along the Eastern Seaboard," Mr. Rybeck said.

Eliminating freight trains from the track would reduce congestion that slows passenger trains, he said.

A new rail line is not supposed to interrupt the passenger service, only reroute freight shipments.

CSX Transportation tried rerouting some freight traffic after the council's ban on hazardous shipments but said doing so created costly delays. A federal appeals court has refused to uphold the ban at least until the railroad's lawsuit is resolved.

Efforts arose in cities and states nationwide after the September 11 attacks to ban or regulate hazardous-materials shipments traveling through densely populated areas.

One bill pending in the California Legislature would require railroads to develop a database of tank cars that need to be upgraded to meet stringent safety standards.

So far, railroads have defeated the local laws by arguing in courts that as interstate freight carriers, they are regulated only by the federal government, not state or local governments. They also say some of the proposals, such as rerouting hazardous shipments around urban areas, are impractical.

"If cities all along your route have these rules, it would be impossible to ship these materials," said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group. "The greater the distance you're moving something, the greater the risk of an accident. In the long run, it does nothing to improve safety."

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

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