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CSX and Maryland officials still expect federal funding for Howard Street Tunnel

CSX moves forward with Howard Street Tunnel improvements in anticipation of federal funding.

CSX plans to spend $25 million to fix flooding in Baltimore's 120-year-old Howard Street Tunnel and prepare engineering plans for its expansion, despite the project's being turned down for $155 million in federal grant money in July.

Federal transportation officials recently met with Maryland and CSX representatives about the state's FASTLANE grant application, said Louis Renjel, the railroad's vice president of strategic infrastructure, speaking at the Greater Baltimore Committee's annual transportation summit.

"They told us we literally couldn't have done better in any of the categories," Renjel said Wednesday. "It was just a sense that the money was way oversubscribed. I think it was $6 or $7 of demand for every dollar available."

In addition to the requested federal funds, Maryland had allocated $145 million for the project under downtown Baltimore and CSX planned to supply $125 million.

Expanding the tunnel is considered imperative for the long-term competitiveness of the port of Baltimore because it would allow for trains to haul shipping containers to and from the port much more efficiently by stacking them two-high.

The $21 million upgrade to the tunnel's water discharge system and the $4 million to move forward with engineering plans for the renovation signal CSX's expectation that the federal grant money will be awarded in a future round.

"If we secure funding next year, because we're doing the drainage work, because we're doing the engineering, we're not skipping a beat here," Renjel said. "We're doing everything we would be doing if we got the grant today, and we can continue to move forward."

Adding two feet to the tunnel's 19-foot clearance would create 500 construction jobs and 3,200 jobs statewide over time, he said. In addition to lowering the port of Baltimore's costs, it would take 178,000 trucks off the road per year, he said.

If the tunnel expansion is funded, it would take about two years of design and four years of construction, since the work would need to be done on weekends to avoid interrupting freight traffic, said Bradley Smith, director of the state's Office of Freight and Multimodalism.

The project also would involve lowering the tracks at nine locations north of the tunnel in Remington and Charles Village, Smith said.

Wednesday's summit at the Waterfront Marriott in Harbor East focused on long-awaited upgrades to both the Howard Street Tunnel and Amtrak's Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel under Bolton Hill.

An environmental impact study will be released next month on a proposal to bore a new, expanded B&P Tunnel beneath Reservoir Hill, with a more gradual turn that would allow for higher speeds, said Rodrigo Bitar, Amtrak's senior vice president and chief engineer.

That project has faced neighborhood pushback over potential noise, vibration, traffic and environmental impacts. The Reservoir Hill proposal was chosen out of 16 options, Bitar said.

Some residents have pointed out that the new tunnel would be tall enough to accommodate double-stacked freight trains, raising concerns about whether it will bring freight traffic under their homes.

About 140 Amtrak and MARC passenger trains and a few freight trains use the 1.4-mile tunnel daily. The new one could accommodate 388 trains each day.

"That seems to be the concern, that we are trying to increase capacity, bringing more freights through this tunnel," Bitar said. "In reality, we cannot speculate what the market will be for freight, but that's not the intent of the design.

"The intent of the design — we have been, I think, clear to the community about what we are trying to do — is that the same way that the current tunnel design is restricting us on speed, the same tunnel's size is restricting us on the equipment we can operate."

The state received $60 million in federal stimulus money in 2010 to study environmental impacts and design 30 percent of the engineering plans, Smith said. The money hinges on the completion of those tasks next September, and the state is on track to meet that deadline, he said.

David Clements, a professor of business studies at the Community College of Baltimore County, asked the panelists about whether the potential socioeconomic impacts of the proposed B&P Tunnel have been studied.

Historically, transportation projects have disproportionately affected poor, minority communities in cities like Baltimore, Richmond and Norfolk, he said.

Smith responded that the effects on West Baltimore neighborhoods represent "a large part of the analysis" in the environmental impact studies. Amtrak and state officials are negotiating the placement of ventilation facilities with the community, he said. The tunnel is deep enough that vibrations are not expected to be an issue, he said.

"I didn't get a feeling that they really addressed it," Clements said afterward. "I did come away with the understanding that they're aware of it and it's being looked at. I wanted to make sure that it's on the table."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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