Project Merit Criteria
This crucial initiative strongly aligns with the overarching goals outlined in the 2021 Iowa State Rail Plan. This study reflects the Iowa DOT’s commitment to enhancing rail
transportation safety, efficiency, and connectivity throughout the state. By relocating the downtown railyard and improving railroad crossings in Waterloo, this project directly contributes to the Plan’s objective of reducing congestion and enhancing the flow of freight rail traffic. Additionally, it prioritizes safety, a core focus of the State Rail Plan, aligns with a goal of the Black Hawk County MPO’s 2045 Long-Range Transportation Plan to improve the safety of the transportation system, and aligns with the U.S. DOT’s National Safety Performance Measures.
Equity and Environmental Justice, Justice40
One of the community’s most perilous and disruptive railway crossings lies a mere six city blocks away from East High School, frequently causing delays that can stretch for hours. Equally common is the students’ perilous choice to risk their well-being by either crawling under or climbing over these halted rail cars, all in a desperate attempt to arrive at school on time.
Technically, this act is labeled as “trespassing” by the railroad. However, for these students, the only alternative
is to wait for an indeterminate amount of time until the trains move on, or to backtrack and find another route. The closest alternative route involves a half mile detour to the US Hwy 63 overpass. No pedestrian overpasses currently exist at East 4th St and the railroad line.
In 2023, East High School enrolled a total of 988 students, out of which 60% belonged to minority communities, and 72% faced economic disadvantages. Notably, the school’s graduation rate stood at 87% which falls considerably below the state median. Figure 1
illustrates that there are 665 homes situated in historically impoverished areas north of the railyard, with East 4th St serving as the most direct route to East High School. Within these homes reside 266 high school students, with a staggering 91% belonging to minority groups. These students, on average, were late to school 22% more often than the district’s average. While it’s challenging to precisely quantify the impact of blocked railroad crossings on these statistics, a clear correlation exists between these obstructions and school attendance.
The current location of the railyard has had a detrimental impact on neighboring residential property values. The noise and air pollution, safety concerns, the aesthetics of industrial facilities, and constant movement of trains detracts from the appeal of the neighborhood and reduces the desirability of living nearby. As a result, prospective homebuyers and renters often perceive these areas as less attractive, which has led to a decline in residential property values near the railyard. As depicted in Figure 2, the average residential property value in this area stands at $57,015, a notable 58% lower than the city-wide average property value of $136,590. This substantial disparity in property values underscores the influence of the proximity to the railyard on real estate values.
This project promises a transformative shift that would significantly enhance safety and
harmonize seamlessly with the surrounding urban fabric. This ambitious endeavor not only prioritizes the safety of all users, including bicyclists and pedestrians, but also embodies a holistic approach that caters to public health, the environment, and the local economy. By relocating the railyard and improving railroad crossings, the project mitigates the risks associated with railway-related accidents, particularly for those on foot or bicycle. It embraces a vision of safe, interconnected streets, where pedestrians and cyclists can move freely without the hazards posed by rail traffic. Moreover, the project's thoughtful integration with the urban environment and land use ensures that it preserves the area's unique character and enhances its aesthetic appeal, making it a more attractive and vibrant place for residents and visitors alike. By promoting non-motorized transportation, this initiative aligns with public health objectives, encouraging active lifestyles and reducing traffic delays, thereby improving air quality and overall well-being. It also demonstrates a commitment to sustainability, by reimagining the use of land previously dedicated to railyards for more community-friendly purposes, fostering economic growth, and reinforcing the city's green credentials. In essence, this project epitomizes a comprehensive and forward-looking approach to urban development that prioritizes safety, community cohesion, and the broader public interest.
The Study is a comprehensive effort to address the significant barriers to access, mobility, and economic development in the City’s Justice40 and EPA IRA disadvantaged community. The study is expected to consider a range of options including relocating the CN Railyard outside of the downtown core and improving the safety and efficiency of railroad crossings.
One of the most significant barriers to access and mobility in the disadvantaged community is the railyard itself. The railyard physically divides the community in two. Residents deal with lengthy delays daily due to trains blocking crossings, especially on East 4th St which serves as a main arterial for the community. This can make it difficult for residents to get to work, school, and other appointments. It also makes it difficult for businesses to operate and attract customers and for residents to access essential services. The blocked crossings are not only inconvenient for drivers. Pedestrians have attempted to cross under slow-moving trains which have resulted in several serious injuries and maimings. A lawsuit in 2018 claimed that since 1991, at least five people have lost hands, arms, or legs while trying to climb through a stopped freight train that started moving unexpectedly.
The current railyard creates numerous environmental burdens on this disadvantaged
community. The railyard is a major source of air pollution, including particulate matter,
diesel emissions, and nitrogen oxides. These pollutants can cause a variety of health
problems, including respiratory problems, heart disease, and cancer. The project location is in the top 85th percentile for all 13 categories of Environmental Justice Indexes for the
State, including toxic releases (97), particulate matter (96), diesel particulate matter (92), air toxics cancer risk (91), ozone (90), and air toxics respiratory HI (86). Furthermore, the area is in the top percentile in the state for asthma (98), persons with disabilities (94), people of color (94), low income (93), unemployment rate (91), and low life expectancy (91). The railyard is also very noisy, creating sleep disturbances, stress, and other health problems. Furthermore, the railyard takes up a significant amount of land in the community which could be used for parks and other green spaces. Increased green space would provide tremendous benefits to the community, especially considering the location immediately adjacent to East High School.
The Study is expected to address these barriers in multiple ways. By relocating the railyard outside of the downtown core, the study would improve safety, access, and mobility for residents and businesses. The study could also recommend improvements to railroad crossings, such as grade separations and pedestrian overpasses. By relocating the railyard, the study would reduce air pollution and noise pollution, greatly improving the quality of life for residents in this historically disadvantaged area.
If the CN Railyard remained in its current location, this historically disadvantaged
community would continue to be disproportionately burdened by its negative impacts.
Residents would continue to be exposed to high levels of air pollution, noise pollution, and vibration. This would have a significant impact on their health and well-being, leading to increased rates of respiratory problems, heart disease, cancer, and other health conditions. The railyard would continue to divide the community, making it difficult for residents to get to work, school, and other essential services. This would further exacerbate the existing disparities between the disadvantaged community and other parts of Waterloo, further dividing a community that has been recognized as one of the worst cities for Black Americans.
The Smokey Row Triangle is on the cusp of a transformative rejuvenation, as it is poised to receive a substantial injection of funds aimed at revitalizing its dilapidated infrastructure
and housing—a much-needed boost that has historically been unavailable to this district.
What were once abandoned commercial properties and districts will soon be vibrant hubs
teeming with access to opportunities previously out of reach. With this newfound access
comes the promise of progress that will not only breathe life into these areas but also
catalyze broader positive changes in our community.
The City of Waterloo, recognizing the pressing need for a resolution, took a significant step by funding a preliminary study conducted by VIA Rail in 2019. This strategic move aimed to identify alternative locations and assess their feasibility comprehensively. One of the primary proposals under consideration involves relocating closer to the Northeast Industrial Area, a change that promises multifaceted benefits. In 2024, the MPO will commence a NEPA Study aimed at determining the optimal solution for enhancing access to this vital industrial zone, with the potential to catalyze robust and sustained economic growth in the years ahead. A relocation of the railyard to this area would substantially enhance the safety of our transportation network and create an environment ripe for extensive economic development, ushering in new opportunities for growth and prosperity. Beyond its economic implications, this relocation would establish a vital lifeline, forging an essential connection for disenfranchised residents within our metropolitan area. It represents a tangible pathway toward a more equitable and interconnected community.
Community Engagement, Stewardship, and Partnerships
For decades, the Waterloo CN Railyard and East 4th St crossing have been safety and access problems for the community. Recognizing the urgent need for improvement, the City of Waterloo and the Black Hawk County MPO have made it a top priority. In the past five years, we've worked closely with the community and formed valuable partnerships to
address these challenges in an underserved area. We've received strong support for this
project, including endorsements from organizations like the Walnut Historic Neighborhood
Association and We Care Neighborhood Association, which are nearby.
We plan to continue this collaboration by engaging the community and gathering input,
insights, and concerns from residents, organizations, and stakeholders. Our commitment to working together highlights our dedication to improving safety and accessibility in this
In September 2023, Veridian Credit Union announced a significant collaboration with
various organizations in Waterloo, including Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity, 24/7 BLAC, House of Hope, and the City of Waterloo Neighborhood Services. They were chosen by the Filene Research Institute to lead a Racial Economic Equity (REE) Incubator in Waterloo. Veridian's REE initiative, called "Driving Wealth Home," aims to address and bridge the racial wage gap within the community.
Veridian recognizes that simply removing barriers and offering equal opportunities for a
few decades won't make up for the 400-year wealth disadvantage faced by African
Americans. "Driving Wealth Home" aims to work closely with the African American
community to achieve several key goals: closing homeownership gaps, increasing financial empowerment, advocating for fair wages, ensuring equal access to loans, and eliminating transportation obstacles.
LeKeisha Veasley, a community inclusion strategist at Veridian Credit Union, acknowledges the challenges faced by Black Americans after centuries of slavery,
segregation, and discrimination and emphasizes the need for innovative and equity-focused strategies.
This collaborative effort brings together the resources of local organizations, the City of
Waterloo, and the Black Hawk County MPO. This partnership is expected to significantly
enhance the success of both the REE initiative and the proposed study, complementing each other and addressing important community issues.
The study will also have a positive impact on the new All-In Grocers project, aimed at
addressing the food desert issue in Downtown Waterloo. Rodney Anderson, the driving
force behind this initiative, is committed to enhancing his community despite numerous
challenges. His $10 million project will repurpose a Brownfield site and cover 28,000
square feet in one of the most underserved areas of town. It includes a grocery store,
restaurant, community center, laundromat, and a location for the 1619 Freedom School, a
free after-school literacy program.
The American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact is a proud partner and investor in this project, demonstrating their commitment to improving Waterloo and its underserved communities. Rodney Anderson's vision and the All-In Grocers project show how determined individuals and partnerships can address social issues and revitalize communities. American Family acknowledges the structural barriers that hinder families and individuals from achieving their goals and is dedicated to helping remove these obstacles.
Climate and Environment
Waterloo is taking big steps to address environmental challenges and combat climate
change. By moving the railyard to a better location, we'll reduce downtown congestion and train idling, leading to lower emissions and better air quality. This change will also make traffic smoother, reducing fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions from idling cars.
The potential redevelopment of the Smokey Row Triangle and a new industrial site in the
Northeast Industrial Area will promote sustainable practices, like eco-friendly designs and
energy-efficient infrastructure, along with green spaces. The study will also explore the
possibility of turning the old railyard's area into a green space, which will not only improve downtown's appearance but also help the environment by capturing carbon, controlling
erosion, collecting rainwater, and providing a habitat for wildlife and pollinators.
This study is a significant step toward a more eco-friendly and sustainable future for
Waterloo. It aligns with our commitment to reduce our carbon footprint and build a resilient community in the face of climate change.
Workforce Development and Economic Opportunity
This project holds the promise of boosting workforce development and economic
opportunities for several reasons. The proposed site's strategic placement would enable the expansion of rail services near Waterloo's Northeast Industrial Area. In 2019, the Black Hawk County MPO collaborated with AECOM to conduct a feasibility study aimed at alleviating congestion and improving the condition of the current over-the-road freight
traffic originating from US Highway 20, 63, and 218, along with other routes. This study
identified various alternatives that would address rail freight access and congestion issues near the preferred relocation site. The Northeast Industrial Park, home to Tyson, John Deere, Ferguson Supply, Ryder Logistics, among others, would, if awarded, synergize with the railroad analysis and NEIA Study, creating a vast industrial site capable of accommodating thousands of acres of development.
Equally important is the potential for revitalizing the once-thriving business districts in
Smokey Row. Reinvesting in this historic triangle holds the potential to fortify the
community and foster cultural integration. This district represents the last remaining
commercial area within the original city plat that has not seen investment in five decades,
offering the prospect of once again becoming a vibrant extension of the downtown district.