Nettie Washington Douglass gets chills when she thinks about her great-great-grandfather’s daring escape from the bonds of slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Disguised in a sailor’s uniform sewn for him by his future wife, Anna Murray, Frederick Douglass crossed the Chesapeake Bay by boat, then boarded a New York-bound train from Baltimore in 1838.
“If it had not been for the railroad,” Washington Douglass said in an interview, “I would not be standing here.”
The $4 billion replacement of Amtrak’s Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel, which will be renamed after Douglass, officially began Friday with a news conference attended by the famed abolitionist’s great-great-granddaughter and federal, state and local officials.
The new tunnel will eliminate the biggest passenger rail bottleneck between Washington and New Jersey — costing Amtrak and MARC trains an average of seven hours of delays each weekday —and increase train speeds to more than 100 mph from 30 mph, said Jeffrey Ensor, Amtrak’s senior director for the south end of the Northeast Corridor.
Tunneling for the two new bores between the West Baltimore MARC Station and Penn Station isn’t expected to begin for a few years, and the overall project will take a decade or longer, with trains continuing to run through the current tunnel during construction of the new one, Ensor said.
The event Friday was timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the beginning of construction on the old tunnel, which will continue to handle roughly four freight trains per week after the completion of the new tunnel for electrified Amtrak and MARC passenger trains, the Amtrak senior director said.
“We’re really hitting a milestone here,” Ensor said in an interview. “The time has come. We’re not going to get another 150 years out of this tunnel. ... It’s time to build a new one.”
Construction of the new tunnel will be paid for by the federal and state government because it is used by Amtrak and MARC passengers, Ensor said. Negotiations are underway to determine how much each will kick in. Unlike the Howard Street Tunnel expansion for double-stacked freight trains, the city will not be asked to help pay for the new passenger rail tunnel, Ensor said.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said the outdated B&P Tunnel, the oldest tunnel along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor, is the culprit for 99% of MARC train delays on the Penn Line.
The tunnel project, which also includes the construction of a new, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant West Baltimore MARC Station, has major implications for workers commuting between Baltimore and D.C., Slater said.
“The new tunnel will allow MARC to provide express service of 30 minutes between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., on the Penn Line,” Slater said. “This express service will expand a tremendous amount of job accessibility for Baltimore residents.”
The two-bore tunnel has been scaled back from Amtrak’s initial proposal, which would have created a four-bore tunnel that could have accommodated both passenger and double-stacked freight trains. The reduced project will offer less capacity but will reduce the cost by more than $1 billion and the construction time by two years, Ensor said.
“With two high-capacity tunnel tubes, which is what we’re going to do, we’re still going to triple the capacity of this segment,” he said. “After this is done, and MARC has their new electrified trains, they could run express trains from Baltimore to Washington, that would get there in under 30 minutes.”
Running only electric Amtrak and MARC passenger trains through the new tunnel is intended to help address community concerns about pollution and noise, Ensor said. Amtrak also is developing plans for investments in affected neighborhoods under a community benefit agreement, he said.
Laura Amlie, president of Residents Against The Tunnels, or RATT, a West Baltimore group that has protested the project since 2015 on environmental justice grounds, said some members might see the scaled-back project as an acceptable compromise.
But others are still worried about tunneling under their homes, she said.
“For those right on the route, it still means explosives and boring machines and vibration under very fragile homes that can’t withstand that kind of vibration,” Amlie said.
The scaled-back tunnel will not reduce the number of people who will be forced to move, but fewer than 30 relocations are expected, “based on current occupancy,” Amtrak spokeswoman Beth Toll said.
“Amtrak will be working with tenants and property owners that require relocation in order to provide both technical and financial assistance with relocations,” Toll said.
Amlie, a nearly 40-year resident of Reservoir Hill, where the new tunnel will be built, also criticized the plan to name it after Douglass, calling it “a pretty blatant PR thing to cement it as underway when ... it’s years away from being funded and done.”
“It kind of is putting some nail polish on the environmental justice aspects of this, in that the people who will be most ill-affected by the construction and the vibration are poor neighborhoods of color,” the RATT president said.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, celebrated its naming for Douglass, however.
In a video message recorded for Friday’s event, Cardin said rail travel “is about freedom and flexibility and opportunities for all Americans to travel and find their place in the world and achieve their goals.”
“It is fitting, therefore, that the replacement of the existing B&P Tunnels will be named for Frederick Douglass, a great American born in Maryland, who pushed our country to do better, living up to its ideals,” Cardin said.
Cardin called the B&P Tunnel replacement “an important endeavor that will result in faster, more reliable rail service for passengers up and down our country’s busiest rail corridor.”
“It will also be a key investment for Baltimore City,” Cardin said. “But it will take resources, a long-term commitment, and partnership among all of us at the federal, state, and municipal level.”
Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said the project will create approximately 30,000 jobs, 20,000 of which will be in construction.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said the city will benefit from the construction jobs on the new tunnel, the upgraded West Baltimore MARC Station and increased MARC service. Scott said the goal is to train West Baltimore residents to take on the jobs created by the project.
“This project is about how we can transform lives for all Baltimoreans,” the Democratic mayor said. “Making the needed investments to improve the accessibility and usability of the MARC transportation system for our residents is the key to a safer, stronger, more vibrant Baltimore.”
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U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County, said the new tunnel will be “both a transportation marvel and an environmental model for many more years to come.”
“I am glad we were able to create this victory for Maryland and the nation,” Mfume said.
Ensor, the Amtrak senior director, credited President Joe Biden, Amtrak’s highest profile supporter, and a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers with moving the project forward.
“We could not have a stronger supporter in the White House, which is great, and Congress is also really recognizing the need and benefit to invest in Amtrak as well,” he said.
Washington Douglass, 78, who traveled from Atlanta for the Friday groundbreaking in Baltimore, said her famous abolitionist ancestor would take pride in lending his name to the new tunnel.
“To have a tunnel in his name is quite an honor,” she said. “And again, I emphasize that had it not been for the train, along with Anna encouraging him to take the train to go to New York, we would not be having this conversation. I would not have been born.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Rose Wagner contributed to this article.
This article has been updated. A previous version included the incorrect name of the group Residents Against The Tunnels. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.