Nearly 20 years ago, Gov. Parris N. Glendening had lunch with the chief executive of CSX to pitch the railroad chief on investing $40 million to expand the Howard Street Tunnel and another one in Harper's Ferry, W.Va., to make the port of Baltimore more competitive.
If CSX Transportation could stack shipping containers two-high atop trains to and from the port, the argument went, it could help the port retain cargo it was losing to competitors. But CSX, the corporate descendant of the once mighty Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that helped build the port, was unmoved, saying it wasn't cost-effective.
Flash forward 20 years. Amid booming international trade and congestion at competing ports, CSX and the state have spent much of the past decade searching for a site south of Baltimore and the busy height-restricted tunnels beneath it where the railroad could shift containers from trucks to so-called double-stacked trains for more efficient transport to Midwestern markets.
Community opposition to the latest proposed site at an old rail yard in Morrell Park seemed to scuttle those plans once and for all last summer. So the railroad and its partners at the port have turned their attention back to the tunnels, with their focus now falling on the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel — which already is being studied for replacement by its owner Amtrak and the state and federal governments.
"We have to get in the B&P if the B&P is double-stack," said Brian Hammock, resident vice president for CSX in Maryland and Delaware.
"Having double-stack capability here in the state of Maryland is probably the single most-wanted asset by the shipping community," said Jim White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "Anything that will get us to double-stack, we're willing to look at."
The winding, 140-year-old B&P Tunnel serves Amtrak and MARC passenger trains and some Norfolk Southern freight trains. It is a choke point for regional rail traffic and a major impediment to high-speed passenger service along the busy Northeast Corridor between Washington and New York.
CSX has rights to use the tunnel but does not now need to, instead running its freight traffic in the city — including the single-stack container trains from Seagirt Marine Terminal — through its own Howard Street Tunnel, which is 120 years old.
Amtrak and state officials helping to lead the ongoing $60 million, federally funded study of the B&P tunnel have agreed that any replacement tunnel must be able to accommodate double-stacked container trains. If that is the case, CSX wants to be at the table.
Reconstructing the Howard Street Tunnel could cost billions of dollars, according to some estimates, and would be hugely disruptive to the city and CSX operations. Questions remain as to whether there even is enough underground space for a larger tunnel between the maze of utility and water lines above it, the Metro line below and the planned path of the Red Line light rail below that.
Replacing the B&P Tunnel would likely cost more than $1 billion, as well, though pricing hasn't been established for the two replacement options that Amtrak and the state have shortlisted as part of the engineering study.
Still, with buy-in from Amtrak, the federal government, state and city officials, the port and freight companies such as CSX and Norfolk Southern, the project would be an affordable proposition much harder to reject than a more complicated replacement of the Howard Street Tunnel, said Anirban Basu, an economist and CEO of the Sage Policy Group.
It also would provide "a triple dividend" because it benefit would not only Amtrak and MARC passenger rail and the freight railroad companies, but the West Baltimore neighborhoods where "there's been so much discussion lately on the lack of jobs proximate to the communities," Basu said.
"There is reason for significant optimism regarding the possibility of replacing the tunnel or rebuilding it on a timely basis — creating double-stacking capacity, supporting both more efficient passenger and freight traffic and creating a ton of new jobs in West Baltimore," Basu said. "This seems to me to be a natural fit."
Bradley Smith, director of freight and multimodalism for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said it's a "no-brainer" to include double-stack capacity in any plans for a new tunnel. But providing that capacity to CSX won't be easy, he said.
CSX approached the department early on in the B&P engineering study to remind the state that it has track rights on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and would like to be part of the conversation about what a replacement B&P tunnel should look like, Smith said.
After that came a lot of other considerations.
Even if a B&P replacement tunnel were to accommodate double-stacking, connections with CSX's existing line would have to be built before the railroad could use the tunnel, Smith said.
"We're starting to look at where those connections might make the most sense, what other changes are needed, but there could be other substantial capital projects needed to make those connections," he said.
Hammock agreed, saying CSX is looking at the "feasibility of interconnection" but is "very, very early in the review process" of the two short-listed tunnel replacement options.
CSX trains from Seagirt now go through the rail cut in Charles Village before turning south and bridging the Jones Falls, above the entrance to the B&P Tunnel, and into the Howard Street Tunnel. To get to the B&P, CSX trains would either have to cross Baltimore on Amtrak's lines or a connector would have to be built to join those lines near Penn Station.
White said the port is poised to take advantage of huge growth in container traffic through Baltimore as the Panama Canal opens to larger ships and congestion in East Coast ports such as New York and Norfolk, Va., sends shippers looking for new ports of call.
"The international community as well as the railroads," he said, "are looking at Maryland right now."
The port has the ability and room to double-stack containers at Seagirt — a much more attractive proposition than a transfer facility south of the tunnel — and an expanded new B&P would allow it to do so, White said.
Container work in general is a "tremendous job multiplier" for the port, White said, and double-stacking would mean nothing but "freight and jobs and economic impact" for Baltimore.
The impact would be so large, he said, that it could outweigh the impact of the port's 50-foot shipping channel and its new cranes for handling massive next-generation mega-ships combined.
Basu said Maryland has "a lot to brag about" in terms of its intermodal networks, its interstate highway system, its relatively inland port, BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and its existing passenger and freight networks. Adding double-stacking would take the state to the next level, he said.
"The lack of double-stacking capacity in Baltimore," he said, "represents a real issue for us in terms of being world class in an industry where we need to be world class: distribution."