No federal funding for two Baltimore transportation projects

Baltimore asked the federal government to help pay for two large transportation projects, and came up empty.

Baltimore came up empty-handed Wednesday when the federal government turned down Maryland's request for $231 million to fund two large transportation projects.

The state had been seeking $76.1 million in federal assistance for an Interstate 95 interchange project to spur redevelopment at the 160-acre Port Covington site in South Baltimore where Sagamore Development wants to build a mixed-use project with a new Under Armour corporate campus, housing, retail and more.

The state also came up short on its bid for $155 million to help alleviate the freight rail bottleneck caused by the obsolete design of the Howard Street Tunnel, which has been a drag on the port of Baltimore for decades.

Gov. Larry Hogan's office released a statement deploring the U.S. Department of Transportation's decision, calling it "a disappointing outcome."

"This is the second time in two years that the Obama administration has overlooked Baltimore by withholding federal assistance that could make a real difference to the future of the city," said Hogan spokesman Matthew A. Clark.

The first time was when the administration turned down Maryland's request for aid in the aftermath of Baltimore's riots last year, he said.

The twin projects were competing against more than 200 applicants from around the country for $800 million available this year under the federal government's FASTLANE program. Only 18 projects were selected.

Clark said that the Republican Hogan administration would seek FASTLANE funding again next year.

"Port Covington and the Howard Street tunnel have the potential to create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in new economic activity, improving the lives of everyday Marylanders," he said.

Clark hinted that Maryland's mostly Democratic delegation to Congress should have done more to influence the Democratic Obama administration. He said they "need to redouble their efforts to secure this funding which is critical to the future of Baltimore and the entire state."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, hinted that the failure to win a grant might be tied to Hogan's decision last year to cancel a $2.9 billion light rail project in Baltimore that had received a preliminary green light from the federal government.

"I hope that when Governor Hogan walked away from $900 million in federal funding for the Red Line — more than all of this year's FASTLANE grants combined — he didn't do irreparable damage to Maryland's ability to compete for discretionary federal transportation awards in the future," Cummings said in a statement.

FASTLANE is an acronym for Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies. According to the federal transportation department, the applications for funding totaled $9.8 billion — more than 10 times the money available.

Some officials had expressed concern before the selections were announced Wednesday that the two items on Baltimore's wish list were seeking money out of the same pot. But Clark said he didn't see that as a problem.

"I don't see them as being in competition in any way," he said.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, said "Maryland submitted two worthwhile proposals" and that he planned to talk to state and federal officials about the best ways to improve submissions in the future. Fellow Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called for Republicans in Congress to help increase federal transportation funding, saying that would "increase safety, reduce gridlock and create jobs."

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was disappointed by the news, her chief of staff said.

"They were both two important projects to Baltimore City, and she advocated for these projects," Kaliope Parthemos said. "We understand there's a limited amount of funding available, and we're hopeful these projects would be able to compete for funds in future rounds, because both projects are transformational for the city of Baltimore."

The lack of FASTLANE funding has no bearing on Sagamore Development's request for aid from the city, Parthemos said. The tax-increment financing legislation slated to go before the City Council is intended to help finance infrastructure improvement projects for the estimated $5.5 billion Port Covington project.

The state had been seeking the $76.1 million to help add lanes to ramps connecting I-95 and Port Covington, now an underused industrial area, and to move a rail line serving the area.

Marc Weller, president of Sagamore, said the lack of federal investment showed the need for the tax-increment financing, or TIF.

"Approving the TIF for Port Covington in 2016 is now more important than ever," Weller said in a statement. "Not only does Under Armour need to expand rapidly to keep pace with its tremendous growth, but it's also now apparent that Maryland won't get its fair share of federal funding without having the required matching funds approved and available."

The money the state sought for the Howard Street Tunnel was intended to be used to help the state and CSX expand the railroad's Howard Street Tunnel so that trains carrying cargo containers stacked two high could pass through. The inability to double-stack because of the more than 120-year-old tunnel's space limitations is seen as a major liability for the Port of Baltimore.

Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for CSX, said "double-stack clearing the Howard Street Tunnel would pay dividends" to the port, the state and the nation.

"CSX is fully committed to continuing our partnership with the state, the city of Baltimore, the port and other interested stakeholders to find a way to complete this critical infrastructure project," he said.

While the Baltimore port lost out on a much-wanted project, some other East Coast ports were more fortunate.

The port of Savannah, Ga., received $44 million toward a $127 million project to improve its traffic connections and enhance its ability to handle container ships. The Massachusetts Port Authority was awarded $42 million toward a $103 million project to deepen a berth on a Boston terminal and to improve container storage.

Maryland's neighbors also landed sizable grants for projects with regionwide impacts.

The National Park Service and the District of Columbia received $90 million toward reconstruction of the 84-year-old Arlington Memorial Bridge over the Potomac. The Virginia Department of Transportation was awarded $165 million toward the $905 million Atlantic Gateway project to improve highways and rail lines along the I-95 and I-395 corridor between Washington and Fredericksburg.

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