New West Baltimore rail tunnel could shake homes, displace people, study says

New West Baltimore rail tunnel could take dozens of homes, shake others, study finds.

Replacing an antiquated rail tunnel under West Baltimore could displace people in dozens of homes and subject those in hundreds more to noise and vibration during and after construction, a new study says.

Federal and state agencies, in commissioning a draft environmental impact statement, studied a range of possible impacts from three alternate routes. The 142-year-old tunnel constricts train traffic through the city.

Built in 1873, the two-track, 1.4-mile Baltimore & Potomac tunnel is one of the oldest in Amtrak's busy Northeast corridor. More than 21,000 passengers travel it daily on 85 Amtrak trains and 57 MARC commuter trains. Two freight trains also pass through it every day.

Amtrak owns the tunnel and the line that uses it, but the Federal Railroad Administration is working with the Maryland Department of Transportation to study replacing it because it is considered a major hindrance to increasing rail traffic between Washington and Boston.

"The existing tunnel has reached the end of its useful life," said Jacqueline Thorne, project manager for the state Transportation Department. "We don't want Maryland to be a bottleneck."

The federal government has committed $60 million to preliminary design and environmental review for the project. A new tunnel is estimated to cost $3.7 billion to $4.2 billion, depending on the route chosen.

The study focused on three variants of a route that swings north and west of the current tunnel. Sixteen routes and remedies had been proposed, but many of the alternatives were rejected because they did not offer enough benefits or posed bigger potential impacts, state officials said.

The three alternate routes still under review would allow trains to go faster, reducing transit times from about 1 minute, 44 seconds to 2 minutes, 32 seconds.

"Those are the ones most worthy for additional consideration," said Bradley Smith, chief of freight and multimodalism for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

West Baltimore residents and businesses have voiced concerns about the project.

Though the neighborhoods that would be affected have more vacant lots and boarded-up homes than most in the city, as many as 48 homes and 10 businesses could be taken through eminent domain, depending on which route is chosen, the report concludes.

Nearly 140 other houses could feel vibrations as trains pass beneath them, while as many as 1,200 homes could experience moderate to severe noise during construction.

The least-expensive option would displace no households and take only two businesses, but the other two options would increase train speeds more.

One business, P. Flanigan & Sons, warned that all three options still under consideration could disrupt one of its key production sites, where it makes 300,000 tons of asphalt a year.

The environmental study briefly considered a "no-build" option, or not replacing the B&P tunnel. While it requires frequent and costly maintenance, the tunnel is still considered usable, the review said.

"It's functioning now; it's safe now," Smith said. "But we have to look at how much longer it can be sustained. It's been there 140-plus years. Can it last another 140? Probably not."

The biggest hurdle could be financial.

While the federal government has underwritten the planning so far, "no other federal funds have been dedicated for the construction of the project," said Federal Rail Administration spokesman Marc Willis.

A Hudson River project is further along in discussing funding. A cost-sharing agreement has been reached to replace a pair of aging rail tunnels beneath the Hudson River linking New York City and New Jersey. The federal government has pledged to pay half, with New York and New Jersey splitting the rest in a project estimated to cost $15 billion to $20 billion.

Officials with Amtrak and Baltimore's Transportation Department declined to comment on the impact study, saying they are still reviewing it.

State and federal officials are seeking public input on the draft impact study before finalizing it. Hearings are to be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23, and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, at Frederick Douglass High School, 2301 Gwynns Falls Parkway. Written comments may be submitted through Feb. 5.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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