South Baltimore is home to the Port of Baltimore, an economic engine generating $3.3 billion in annual wages and $2.6 billion in annual business revenue. But it is also home to communities that have long borne the burden of living alongside such intense industrial infrastructure.
For too long, we have treated this situation as a zero-sum game: Either you can have a thriving port economy with well-paying jobs, or you can have thriving neighborhoods where families live in safety and dignity. But now — thanks to strong community leadership, an imaginative administration and courageous industry groups — we are starting to see a future in which everyone can succeed together.
Just a few months ago, the administration of Gov. Wes Moore invested $11.6 million in brand new zero-exhaust electric locomotives for CSX’s Curtis Bay facilities. It is easy to dismiss this improvement as a drop in the bucket — after all, for low-income, largely minority communities such as Curtis Bay, locomotive exhaust is just one of the many challenges they face. But ignoring this important progress would be a mistake.
These engines are a useful step forward, literally helping the adjacent neighborhood to breathe easier. But more importantly, they are part of a sea change in how we address the challenges that jointly face port facilities and communities along the Patapsco River. They are a tangible demonstration that job creation and environmental justice can go hand in hand and further evidence that community needs play a legitimate role in shaping our booming port economy.
Years ago, the Maryland Port Administration took the lead in establishing the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center, America’s first urban wildlife refuge. Now it is leading the planning effort for a new Masonville Cove Connector, a trail to physically connect Brooklyn to its waterfront for the first time. Many technical decisions are yet to be made, but we are finally asking the right questions about how to safely accommodate everyone along a shoreline that houses both industrial facilities and nesting bald eagles.
This “both/and” approach to jobs and neighborhoods is also a fundamental component of the Reimagine Middle Branch Plan adopted by Baltimore City in 2023. We are now rolling out a $175 million pipeline of projects to ensure that citizens have access to their waterfront, transforming barriers into connections while dramatically improving quality of life. Already, the citizens of Baltimore are enjoying the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center, a major new recreational facility replacing what had once been an incinerator and landfill. Just a few years ago, this would have been thought impossible.
Reimagine Middle Branch includes $56 million worth of wetland and shoreline restoration, known as the Middle Branch Resiliency Initiative. This will simultaneously improve quality of life while helping to protect critical infrastructure from storms and flooding. This kind of widespread shoreline restoration is not just a fanciful dream but a series of fully funded capital projects that are now going through the permitting process. Starting in 2024, residents will see us break ground on the first stage of the work and soon after will start to benefit from the recreational, water quality, and habitat benefits that come with it. It is worth noting that these projects are moving forward with the enthusiastic support of industrial and institutional facilities, many of which are also beneficiaries of this work. We are hopeful that, if funding continues at its current pace, we may be able to double this investment during the next five years.
Nobody thinks CSX’s investment in new electric locomotives can address the full array of community concerns that exist in South Baltimore. But it is another important step toward a future in which both industry and communities in South Baltimore can thrive.
Brad Rogers is executive director of the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership.