Options for B&P tunnel replacement narrow as Amtrak considers future

Amtrak is considering a new rail line through the heart of West Baltimore

State and federal officials narrowed the options for replacing an old Baltimore tunnel that bottlenecks East Coast passenger rail to two, one of which could displace residents of a poor west-side neighborhood already plagued by vacant homes.

The two proposals, both of which would require extensive tunneling, were shortlisted recently as part of an engineering and environmental review aimed at replacing the nearly 150-year-old Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel, which twists under the city, slowing traffic along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.

The existing 1.4-mile tunnel, built as a cut-and-cover project through West Baltimore in 1873, is one of the oldest structures on Amtrak's system and is "approaching the end of its useful service life," according to a draft report outlining alternatives. Its curving route slows Amtrak, MARC and freight traffic along the corridor and restricts the size and types of freight that can move through it.

An estimated 85 Amtrak trains, 57 MARC commuter trains and two freight trains pass through it each day.

Amtrak, which owns the line and tunnel, and the Federal Railroad Administration, which is helping the Maryland Department of Transportation oversee the current study, separately identified the B&P Tunnel as a major impediment to increasing rail capacity between Washington and Boston — a major goal as populations continue to grow.

"New York is competing with Baltimore in terms of bragging rights [for] the most rundown infrastructure," said Drew Galloway, Amtrak's chief of Northeast Corridor infrastructure planning and performance. "We're looking for an outcome that will improve operations for the greater city, for MARC and for freight."

One new option, known as the "Great Circle" route, would sweep north from the West Baltimore MARC station, go underground in an industrial area and then arc east in a deep 2-mile tunnel beneath Easterwood, Fulton, Penn North and Reservoir Hill before emerging in a rail yard west of Penn Station.

The second option, known as the "Robert Street" route, would cut east from the MARC station, enter a tunnel in the middle of the struggling Midtown Edmondson neighborhood, then travel for 1.8 miles below parts of Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park, Druid Heights, Mount Royal and Bolton Hill before emerging in the same yard near Penn Station.

Officials with Amtrak, the FRA and MDOT all said it was too early to discuss specifics of the proposals, but community input will be sought before any action is taken.

Galloway also declined to say which option Amtrak prefers. The "Great Circle" route would allow trains to travel at faster speeds but also require a longer tunnel at deeper depths, which could be more expensive.

A final report on the possible replacement — which also includes options to do nothing or rehabilitate the existing tunnel — is due by the end of the year, officials said.

The full environmental and engineering review, begun last year under a $60 million federal grant, is due in 2017, and would include detailed assessments of any replacement route. The project wouldn't be completed until after 2020, and would depend largely on whether officials secure an estimated $1 billion or more in funding.

Still, community leaders and residents in Edmondson said that with the proposal now on the table, they'd like answers sooner rather than later.

"With a plan like this, you're going to take property, you're going to disrupt traffic, you're going to disrupt some people's way of life," said Lovell Parham, president of the Edmondson Community Organization, which is located in a building along the "Robert Street" route. "So what are you going to do for the community?"

Larry Barksdale, 31, who lives with his family in a rowhouse along the proposed route, had similar thoughts. He has lived on Rayner Avenue for about a year and a half, he said, but isn't particularly attached to the block.

Most of the houses are abandoned and boarded up. Across the street, a demolition crew is tearing out a home's dilapidated interior, sending dust clouds into the air. Around the corner, a sign marks another building for demolition.

"If they would find somewhere for us to stay that's comfortable, I wouldn't mind," Barksdale said. "I really don't like the vacant houses, because we got mice and rats eating up the trash."

Bradley Smith, acting director of freight and multimodalism for MDOT, said agency officials will begin ramping up efforts to share information with and collect feedback in the community now that the options have been narrowed from 13 down to two.

As the engineering and environmental review work continues, there will be soil testing and utility evaluations but also an "inventorying" of community assets and other planned local projects, Smith said.

"We're really in the fact-finding stage," he said. "I think it will be a productive upcoming few months, and in 2015 we should have a good amount of information to share with the public and others who are involved with the project."

One consideration, Smith said, will be how a new Amtrak line through Edmondson would affect the existing 25-year plan to transform the neighborhood and others like it through robust, transit-oriented development around the West Baltimore MARC station.

Because the project is "very preliminary," a spokeswoman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declined to comment.

While the community organization's Parham said he appreciates the promised attention, he wishes he'd been more informed about the proposal — before it was shortlisted.

"It's a little late, because if we've gotten down to two [options], it's a 50 percent chance it will be in our community," he said.

He would never oppose it out of hand, he said, in part because watching the neighborhood lose so many of its residents in recent years has left him "tired of not seeing progress."

Still, some projects can be bad for a community, he said, and the devil is always in the details.

"Is it a win-win situation, or is it a win-lose situation?" he asked. "Because if it's a win-lose situation, it's the community that will lose."

Regina Johnson, 62, who is in the process of buying her longtime home in the 1900 block of W. Lanvale St. — less than a block from where the new tunnel entrance is proposed — said she "wouldn't mind moving" to a different neighborhood.

But she wonders if she would be able to once the project gets underway, and whether a tunnel dropping just beneath her home would be safe.

"My house," she said, "is not that stable."

krector@baltsun.com

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