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Port Covington faces long odds and local competition as it vies for federal funds

The U.S. Department of Transportation soon will decide the fate of a $76.1 million request for federal funding in Port Covington, where the state wants to widen Interstate 95 ramps and make other changes in anticipation of the new Under Armour campus planned in the area.

The proposal faces long odds, vying with more than 200 applicants seeking 13 times the amount of money available.

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Among its rivals is another Maryland request, for $155 million to remake the century-old Howard Street rail tunnel, a freight bottleneck has hobbled the port of Baltimore for years.

Local politicians downplayed any competition between the proposals, which pit one of the state's traditional economic engines against a project backed by the founder of the fast-growing sports apparel company. But as Port Covington seeks millions more in federal and state funding over the next two decades, this contest for federal transportation funds offers a preview of potential clashes between local priorities that lie ahead.

"I don't want to play one against the other … but if we're talking about having to take money from the same pot, that will enter into the conversation at some point," City Councilman Carl Stokes said. "We can't talk about Port Covington without having the broader conversation of competing interests in the city."

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank is pushing for the redevelopment of Port Covington, an under-utilized industrial area in Baltimore south of Interstate-95 where his private real estate firm, Sagamore Development Co. has amassed about 160 acres and is planning a massive mixed-use development next to a new Under Armour headquarters.

The $76.1 million Port Covington proposal would help the state and the city add lanes to nearby I-95 ramps to address an expected traffic boom; reconstruct a CSX railroad bridge and relocate a rail line to ease the creation of a new street grid in the area.

The $155 million Howard Street proposal would help CSX and the state enlarge a 1.7-mile railroad tunnel under downtown Baltimore to allow passage of trains carrying shipping containers stacked two-high, a feature considered critical to efficient freight movement to and from the port.

Matthew A. Clark, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the state is hopeful for both projects. He declined to say whether the Howard Street tunnel or Port Covington is a higher priority, characterizing the two proposals as a "single application" for Baltimore City.

"That's not a choice we have to make and not a choice that we are making right now," he said. "That's like asking someone to choose between two children."

Department of Transportation officials declined to comment for this article, citing the pending decision.

Designed for large projects that will ease freight shipments, the FASTLANE grant program has $800 million available this year, but there are limits on how much can go to urban and non-highway projects.

While it's not unusual for states to submit more than one project for Department of Transportation grant competitions, awards are far more rare — nevermind more than one, since federal officials are required to consider geographic diversity when making decisions.

"They're hugely competitive," said Joe McAndrew, policy director for Transportation for America, a Washington-based transit advocacy group. "Having competing projects within the state is going to be challenging."

Sagamore has moved aggressively to secure backing for the Port Covington proposal, lining up support from politicians, while courting White House officials and others. In April, shortly after grant proposals were due, Plank hosted President Obama at the exclusive Caves Valley Golf course in Baltimore County.

Tom Geddes, CEO of Plank Industries, said the two men did not discuss the grant. White House officials declined to comment on the outing.

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"There will always be other worthy projects submitted for funding to federal grant programs," Sagamore Development President Marc Weller said in a statement. "We advocate for Port Covington because we strongly believe in the transformative nature of the Port Covington project for Baltimore and the entire state—and the broad impact it will have on peoples' lives who live here in the city."

Members of the congressional delegation contacted by The Baltimore Sun, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski, said they have lobbied U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on behalf of both projects, citing the job-creating potential, but declined to rank them by order of priority.

The feelings of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who sits on a committee overseeing the FASTLANE program, are "just like his feelings for the Ravens and the Orioles," spokesman Marty Welch wrote in an email. "Our region is fortunate to have two strong proposals in the running."

Whatever federal officials decide is likely to shape chances for other proposals — even those competing for other pools of money, said Brian O'Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

The state, for example, also is seeking $14.7 million from a different DOT grant program for improvements to North Avenue. Sagamore expects to seek more federal money later for a $165 million Light Rail spur.

"The official answer is they're different pots of money and they each have their criteria and projects get scored, but of course somewhere it has to factor in that we have 50 states, and so many congressional districts," O'Malley said. "Somebody's keeping an eye on that."

The request for FASTLANE funds is just part of the $1.1 billion in public financing and grants Sagamore has said it wants for Port Covington infrastructure, including $573 million from state or federal sources and $535 million in tax increment financing, or TIF, from the city.

Though the funds in question amount to less than the $2.9 billion Red Line proposal, support for Port Covington points to a longstanding pattern of transportation decisions that fail to benefit residents of West Baltimore, said Ajmel Quereshi, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed a complaint against the state over the decision to cancel the east-west transit route.

The I-95 changes would mainly serve people coming from the north and south, he said.

"This is all money that could go into West Baltimore, that we think should go into West Baltimore, and the fact that the Port Covington project is going forward and the Red Line is not just speaks to where the state is placing its priorities as regards to future development in Baltimore," he said.

It's not clear how plans for Port Covington would change if the federal government says no.

Sagamore has cited the FASTLANE contest as a reason it is pressing the city to move quickly on its request for $535 million in tax increment financing. The money would come from $660 million in bonds borrowed by the city and repaid with new property taxes generated by the project.

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Weller said in a statement the firm hopes the state would resubmit the I-95 proposal in later years if it is unsuccessful this time and the need for a TIF remains. An unsuccessful bid for the federal funds would hurt the project, he added.

"If one element is removed, that changes each other element and negatively impacts a logical and efficient progression of the project and the ability of the system to support safe and efficient movement of all users," he said.

The construction plan, as outlined in the application for city financing, suggests the I-95 projects would occur after the second round of bonds is issued in June 2018. But that phasing could change if the money does not come through, said Baltimore Development Corp. President William H. Cole IV.

The guarantee of $33 million in state funds depends on the award of federal money. City officials have said even if the City Council approves the funding requests, they will not issue bonds without evidence that full funding is in place.

"We were pretty clear when we were approving the project … that the federal and state participation is absolutely necessary for this project to be a reality," Cole said.

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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