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Rail plan could boost Hub City

January 11, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

A plan by a Maryland railroad to make Hagerstown a hub for train traffic coming to and from the Port of Baltimore could mean many jobs and boost economic growth in the area, officials said.

But how much of an impact the plan would have seems as uncertain as the odds of it ever becoming a reality.

Last week, officials with Maryland Midland Railway, a short-line railroad with 65 miles of track, announced expansion plans that would make Hagerstown a hub for rail traffic between the port and the Midwest.

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Part of that hub could eventually be a rail-trucking terminal, where freight would switched from trains to trucks and vice versa, said Maryland Midland President Paul D. Denton.

"That's very much a possibility because you have a major hub - not only of rail, but of trucking - in Hagerstown," Denton said.

Hagerstown, which earned the nickname, "The Hub City," from its storied railroad heritage, has long enjoyed the benefits of having freight train service. Currently five railroads converge in the city. Besides railroad employees, the area benefits from businesses having rail access to much of the country east of the Mississippi River.

"The side benefit is significant and it's greater than the number of people the railroad employs," said Hagerstown Mayor Steven T. Sager.

In Carroll County, where Maryland Midland is headquartered in Union Bridge, the company's rail line has been responsible for spurring business growth, said Jack Lyburn, the county's director of economic development.

"They have a lot of large customers here," he said.

Lehigh Portland Cement, Maryland Midland's largest customer and also the company's largest shareholder, is currently undergoing a $180 million expansion to increase its production capacity by 50 percent at its flagship plant in Union Bridge.

"It would be an asset to any community to have a short line," Lyburn said.

Denton is hoping to up the ante with the company's expansion plan, which would give the 17-year-old railroad access to the Baltimore port. Crucial to the plan is Hagerstown, where Maryland Midland trains could switch freight and continue to important Midwest markets.

Because a small carrier like Maryland Midland can charge less to haul freight than larger carriers., the company's plan could lead to growth among companies that will suddenly be able to afford to export to Midwest markets, according to a report prepared for the company by the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University.

That will translate into 1,750 jobs across the state if Maryland Midland has the port-to-Hagerstown access, the report said. Increasing the size of rail tunnels in Baltimore and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., so that double stacks of shipping containers can pass through, would add another 3,136 jobs.

The report estimates that 96 percent of the initial job growth - before heightening the tunnels - will come from manufacturers, which typically pay higher wages than other sectors of employment.

The report does not estimate what the specific impact would be on Hagerstown, but company officials have said this area would benefit immediately from an undetermined number of rail jobs and growth in new and existing local businesses.

And a healthy and competitive railroad industry is particularly important to Hagerstown because of its many warehouses and distribution centers that are seeking low-cost hauling, said Chuck Porcari, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

"Railroads can be a boon to a community economically," Porcari said.

To encourage development along its tracks, Maryland Midland recently started a program where it purchases industrial sites and then leases them for no cost to companies that would enter into a long-term contract with the railroad.

"(The company) wins and we win, and the county wins," Denton said. No company has yet to sign up with the plan, "but we've had a lot of nibbles," he added.

Maryland Midland would continue its "free land" plan in this area, Denton said. But first it must purchase a crucial 17-mile stretch of track from Highfield, in the northeastern part of Washington County, to Hagerstown.

Another important part of the company's plan is buying rail access in Baltimore that would allow its trains to reach the Port of Baltimore. Both sections of track needed by Maryland Midland are owned by CSX Corp.

The company is trying to strengthen its position by convincing state lawmakers that its plan is crucial to the future of competitive rail freight hauling in the port.

The plan received an enthusiastic but noncommittal reception from lawmakers in Annapolis last week. Likewise, officials in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration have stopped short of an endorsement but did say they are committed to preserving locally owned short-line railroads in the state.

"We would look out for their interests just like we would look out for any business here," Porcari said.

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