By Ashlee Green

In April 2017, Norfolk Southern Railway received a $20 million grant from PennDOT to upgrade 14 bridges in Allegheny County. Three of those bridges—at Columbus, Pennsylvania and West North Avenues—are located along the Pittsburgh Line, a rail line running through the Northside. Some Northside residents worry the project is moving forward with little transparency and are demanding a say in the process.

Norfolk Southern currently operates the Mon Line, a
double-stack rail line which runs south of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River. The company is proposing to turn the Pittsburgh Line into a second double-stack rail line by either increasing the height of the three Northside
bridges by three feet or lowering the railroad tracks underneath the bridges, known as “undercutting.” David Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, called double-stack rail cars an “industry standard” in an April 2017 article in the Post-Gazette. He also said once bridges are raised, train traffic will increase from 20 to 25 trains a day to 40 to 50.

Residents are concerned about the impact of increased train traffic in the Northside to their community roads, public sidewalks, and personal health. A community meeting presented by Norfolk Southern was held on Tuesday, June 26, at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to address these concerns, but many residents left it feeling unsatisfied. Following the meeting, Representative Jake Wheatley responded with a written message to his constituents:

“The meeting felt like an obligation to meet the bare
minimum and your concerns were not answered or addressed,” he wrote. He promised to “vigorously advocate” for the communities affected and keep residents updated on new information. The railway project, he reiterated, is part of a grant from the state of Pennsylvania to improve statewide rail transport.

“There are economic benefits, as well as benefits to keeping fewer trucks on the road, both for our roadways and environment,” wrote Representative Wheatley.

But there are problems too.

“There are huge numbers of people in the city and county that don’t even know that this is happening,” said Matthew Mehalik, Executive Director of The Breathe Project, a coalition of environmental advocates, academics, public health professionals and citizens working to improve air quality in the Pittsburgh region. He’s one Pittsburgher leading the call for more meetings with public officials, more analysis of the proposed railroad changes, more accountability for Norfolk Southern and more communication on all fronts.

Another one is Erica Jackson, Predoctoral Fellow at the
Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC) at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. At the request of Glenn Olcerst, a concerned Northside resident whose been spearheading efforts to educate the public about railroad updates, the CHEC recently completed an analysis of how air quality in Pittsburgh could change if Norfolk Southern plans are carried out.

Jackson said air quality is a major concern because it affects people every day. The study, available to the public on the Breathe Project website, estimated that 112,189 people are living in close proximity to the Pittsburgh Line. It measured “particulate matter,” which is one pollutant associated with increased train traffic, and estimated if 20 additional 70-car freight trains were added and ran through the Northside, it would produce the same effect as 1,360 urban diesel buses per day. Double-stacked trains are taller and heavier than average freight trains, Jackson said, and depending on details specific to each train size, could potentially cause an effect closer to 6,800 buses per day.

Admittedly, Mehalik said, the CHEC study is a “first pass analysis” of how the Norfolk Southern proposals could affect surrounding communities.

Nevertheless, Jackson said many questions still remain about the rail proposals, like which kind of engines the double-stacked trains will have, whether or not there will be limits to train idling times and which other pollutants they will produce. Once these details are known, she said, a more accurate analysis of emissions can be made.

Rudy Husband, Norfolk Southern Resident Vice President, said Norfolk Southern is currently conducting an environmental assessment that will address
issues like noise, vibration and emissions. He estimates it to be completed and available to the public this September.

According to him, it’s only a matter of time before bridges in the Northside fall into disrepair and become unsafe. He sees the proposals as a benefit to the City and a way for it to get two new bridges essentially for free. He said the rail route through the Northside has always been a primary route for moving hazardous materials like crude oil, ethanol and chlorine and claims this project will not result in an increase in those materials.

“Unfortunately, bridges don’t last forever,” he said. “We are trying to design bridges that are acceptable to the public, but there are just some engineering realities that cannot be avoided,” he continued.

“It’s going to take some time to proceed on a plan that everyone can live with. We realize it’s a challenge.”

At least all sides can agree on one factor: communication needs improvement.

“There’s a lot of misinformation being spread about this project in the Northside, which has caused a lot of unnecessary aggravation,” said Husband.

“The issue is making sure these communities understand what’s being proposed, said Mehalik. “That’s the first step.”

“Once there’s greater delineation of what the risks are, then we can talk about solutions.”