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Last week, the City of Pittsburgh sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission about a problem: They were formally requesting that Norfolk Southern Railroad come up with alternatives to its proposal to redevelop railways within the city.

Norfolk Southern Railroad’s “Vertical Clearances” project, as currently submitted, would adversely affect city streets along with the adjacent residents and communities,” the letter says.

The letter puts city hall on the side of growing community opposition to the project. To clarify the issue, here’s a quick primer on the controversy.

What is the Vertical Clearances project?

Northfolk Southern Railroad has operated several train lines in and around the city for decades. The Mon Line, which crosses through the South Side, is capable of supporting double-stack railcars. But the Pittsburgh line running through the East End and the North Side only supports standard size cars due to the presence of several low-hanging bridges.

Larger cargo, which can include fuel and other hazardous materials, mainly travels in double-stack shipping containers.

So the Vertical Clearances project, first proposed last August, would raise the height of seven bridges along the Pittsburgh line to allow double-stack trains to have access to the route.

What’s the local response?

The main opposition centers around the section of railway passing through the North Side, which cuts through Allegheny Commons Park and is within one mile of the hospital, stadiums and several museums.

The advocacy group Railway Pollution Protection Pittsburgh (RP3), which counts State Sen. Wayne Fontana as a member, filed their own letter of objection to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission on Feb. 18, arguing that the project is moving too quickly to adequately address health and safety concerns.

“Residents living and working within the one-mile blast zone of the proposed modified rail route through the city deserve to enjoy peace of mind, urban health, and safety,” says Glenn Olcerst, lead counsel for RP3.

What does Northfolk Southern say?

The train company argues that expanding double-stack routes around the city will be both safer for the public and more efficient for the company. The expansion project would not increase the net amount of fuel or hazardous materials moving through the city, they say, but would just spread it over several pathways.

According to the company, every double-stack train coming from the eastern part of the state currently needs to be routed through the Mon Line, which in turn leads to service delays and wasted fuel along the track.

Furthermore, the Mon Line sits in a part of the city that is increasingly under risk for landslides, meaning that larger trains carrying unstable materials would be much better off routing through the northern part of the city.

What happens next?

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Norfolk Southern Manager of Public Relations Jon Glass emphasized that the plan before the commission is only a proposal. In accordance with PennDOT regulations, the company is currently working on an environmental review that will be released sometime this summer.

From there, Glass says the company will hold a series of open house meetings to gain further input from the community as they develop the project.

So this debate is likely to carry on for much of 2019. Stay tuned to NEXTpittsburgh for more updates.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.