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Property rights and commerce collide when oil trains pass by p2

10/14/2015 | Real Estate Blog

Land use policy is — or should be — geared toward achieving the property’s highest and best use. The problem is that policymakers may disagree on what exactly the highest and best use is. Take Philly’s waterfront: At one time, factories and an enormous shipyard provided the most value to the landowners and the community. Over time, our understanding of value came to include the environmental toll and the noneconomic benefits of open spaces in a big city.

We have been talking about the oil trains that travel through residential neighborhoods, especially past schools. A derailment or, worse, a fire could affect neighborhoods up to a mile away from the tracks. Researchers estimate that 15,000 schools in this country lie within that blast zone.

In February 2015, hiladelphia Inquirer reported that between 45 and 80 oil trains pass through the city every week. More than 400,000 city residents live one-half mile from the tracks, in what federal guidelines refer to as “the evacuation zone.” In the region as a whole, the number jumps to about 700,000.

Activists would like the city to do more to protect its citizens. City officials respond that the most the city can do is develop an efficient evacuation plan: The railroads are regulated by the federal, not state or local, government. If the city wants safety rules and policies changed, the most it can do is lobby its congressional delegation — right alongside the oil companies and railroads.

Federal regulators have put a few safety measures in place. In May, for example, the Department of Transportation lowered the speed limit to 40 for trains traveling through cities. Other rule changes that went into effect that month required

  • Improvements to tank car design and construction, including retrofitting of existing stock
  • The use of more advanced braking systems
  • The use of rail routing risk assessments
  • Improved communication about routing between railroads and state, local and tribal officials
  • A more accurate system to measure the risk posed by different types of unrefined petroleum-based products

Some of these initiatives cannot happen overnight, so the DOT has offered some deadlines. With the braking system, for example, certain categories have until 2023 to comply.

Safety and environmental advocates would like to see more and would like to see it sooner, but rulemaking takes time.

We’ll let you know what happens.

Source: Insurance Journal, “15,000 Schools Located Within ‘Blast Zone’ of Oil Trains,” Sept. 8, 2015