By Rodger Digilio
Alexandria City Council discovered recently that while they had been hard at work on their budget, Norfolk Southern Railroad was hard at work setting up an ethanol transfer station on railroad property in the west end of Alexandria. Nearby citizens discovered the station and complained about this hazardous use appearing in their backyard.
It seems that the Mayor had been briefed on this plan several years ago and indicated to the City Manager that it should be opposed. City staff did oppose it but in the end Federal Railroad legislation trumped local concerns and Norfolk Southern had the authority to set up the station without any local input except for technical public safety issues which are being addressed.
The legislation has been around awhile. Railroads are a pleasant place to take the kids to wave at the engineer as the train rumbles by. Railroads, however, have always made people angry. We really don’t want to know what is in all those box and tank cars behind the locomotive with the waving engineer. This case is interesting in both what it says about council-staff relations and about council’s view of the place of Alexandria in the new era of energy scarcity.
First we are just as shocked as council to discover that they were not kept informed. Elected officials are on the point in dealing with citizen concerns. Ignorance is never a good response to a voter who says: ”Do you know what just happened a block from my house?” We have no idea why the manager and his staff did not inform council, but this incident contains the seeds of what could become a major source of distrust between the two. That must not be allowed to happen. Alexandria, like all of the localities in the United States, is facing severe issues revolving around revenue and energy. Our elected and appointed leadership must be united to face them. Council and the manager must quickly develop a plan to put this failure to inform behind them. Second, the mayor and council must stop looking at Alexandria’s place in the world as if it is 1995.
For decades we have dismantled our industrial infrastructure and concentrated on making Alexandria a bucolic city. We wished to be an oasis of brick sidewalks and cute townhouses amidst a sea of green lawns. Cheap energy allowed us to pursue that dream but the era of cheap energy is drawing to a close. Cities like Alexandria grew up because they were the most convenient transportation hubs in the region. Nothing that has happened will change that fact. Now that we are moving to an era of expensive energy, the same transportation factors that drove the creation of our city originally will reassert themselves.
Norfolk Southern clearly put the ethanol transfer station where it had easy links to surface transportation. It would not have had those links in Lorton or further outside the beltway.
The new energy math is simple and Alexandria’s City Council must embrace it. The Mayor’s vow to oppose this plant even if we become a “laughingstock” is misplaced. We already are a “laughingstock” for the more then $4 million we have squandered on failed lawsuits to shut down Mirant’s Potomac River Generating Station.
In this new era of energy scarcity, direct attacks on those industries producing energy will fail. Rather, the key must be to protect Alexandria’s citizens from having them in our midst. We should adopt the same approach towards this ethanol facility that we have finally adopted toward Mirant’s plant. It would be far better not to have it but if it must be here it should not harm our citizens.
That is a policy that will produce positive results in the long run. It will not waste millions of taxpayer dollars. It will make us leaders in the new era of scarcity by asserting firmly that the environmental progress we have made in the past century will not be sacrificed to the gods of energy. Such a policy will require leadership, but that is why our members of council are elected. They are elected to lead and not to do just what citizens want. Hopefully they understand that fundamental distinction.