Nearly half a billion dollars for 18 inches.
That’s how much the CSX railroad, the state of Maryland and others are poised to spend expanding a more than a century-old tunnel under downtown Baltimore where an acrid chemical fire burned for days after a 2001 derailment. The changes will fix a bottleneck that has hampered growth at the Port of Baltimore and rail traffic along the East Coast.
After decades of funding hurdles, the $466 million Howard Street Tunnel project is finally poised to begin. Preparations are underway to heighten clearances through the 1.7-mile tunnel and under three bridges in Baltimore, along with 19 others along the line to Philadelphia. Pending federal approvals, work could begin later this year and end as soon as 2024, officials say.
Notching the tunnel’s ceiling, lowering tracks, and replacing or reconstructing bridges will give CSX the 18 inches it needs to stack on its rail cars moving through the tunnel two of the standardized shipping containers that can be readily moved between ships, trucks and trains.
Such so-called double-stacking will double the capacity of trains leaving the Port of Baltimore and level the playing field between the port and its East Coast competitors. It also could spawn environmental benefits by reducing the number of trucks on the road.
“It’s the most important economic development project Maryland’s ever seen,” Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said during a recent visit to the port.
It’s unclear when the project will break ground, though CSX already has lowered a track-level, 40-inch stormwater line inside the tunnel. With container volumes surging — they have been booming at the Southeast Baltimore deep-water port since the opening of the expanded Panama Canal in 2016 — the state and the port’s private operator are investing in capacity at the docks.
A state-funded, $10 million dredging project just finished digging out a second 50-foot berth so two colossal container ships can tie up at once at Seagirt Marine Terminal. Four more towering container cranes are expected to arrive in August, among $166 million in operator upgrades at the terminal.
Brian Hammock, CSX’s resident vice president of state government affairs for Maryland, emphasized the tunnel’s consumer and environmental benefits, arguing it would make goods cheaper for consumers by lowering transportation costs.
“Having the things that you need on the shelves at a price that you can afford — the logistics cost of that is important,” he said. “This type of project helps us get more volume through this location at a lower cost, because you’re using less trains, less fuel.”
A historic headache
Hand-dug over the course of five years by a crew of 2,400 Baltimore and Ohio Railroad laborers to connect Washington and Philadelphia, the tunnel opened to cheers and handkerchief-waving in 1895.
The artery, which stretches from a mouth near Camden Yards to Mount Royal Station in Midtown, was declared “A Railroad Triumph” by The Sun at the time. But it quickly became a headache.
Construction damaged a Baltimore City College building, which had to be razed, and the then-whopping $7 million cost of the tunnel drove the B&O into bankruptcy. The tunnel’s single track and the steep inclines and curving route in and out of it slowed rail traffic, turning it into a chokepoint for trains moving north and south along the railroad’s busy route through Baltimore.
Twenty years ago, the derailment of a 60-car train sparked an underground chemical fire that burned for about six days inside the tunnel, shuttering parts of downtown, disrupting rail traffic and canceling Orioles games at the ballpark near the southern mouth of the tunnel.
Double-stacking capacity had been desired for decades before the tunnel fire, but the cost of renovations — and on-and-off negotiations over who would pay what — was always the obstacle.
CSX, the B&O’s successor and tunnel owner, almost abandoned the project in 2017, walking away from the talks with the state and saying the expansion “no longer justifies the level of investment.” But the company returned a year later under a new CEO and, after years of failed applications, the project received a needed $125 million in federal funding in 2019.
“We ran into some unfortunate delays with CSX after having it all teed up,” Hogan said. “But we never gave up and kept working on it with a great team of people.”
In addition to the federal grant, Maryland is paying $202.5 million, CSX is paying $113 million, Pennsylvania is paying $22.5 million, and $3 million is coming from Federal Highway Administration formula funds for Baltimore City, according to the state.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who helped urge the railroad to return to the project, said the expansion will allow the state’s port to receive more of the containers that have traditionally gone to rival ports in Norfolk, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina, and New York, which dwarf Baltimore in container volume.
“We’ll be able to increase not only our volume but our share,” the Maryland Democrat said. “We now literally see a light at the end of the tunnel. ... We can now see this project being completed.”
‘The future of the port’
As longshoremen in cranes loaded and unloaded an enormous container ship on a recent rainy afternoon, Port of Baltimore Executive Director William P. Doyle and Bayard Hogans, vice president of Ports America Chesapeake, stood at an 800-foot construction site on the water’s edge nearby.
The work — constructing a sea wall, strengthening the wharf and the dredging offshore — will create a second berth at the terminal, said Hogans, whose company operates the state-owned container terminal under a 50-year lease.
Ports America Chesapeake also has purchased 15 new hybrid-electric gantry cranes, which move the truck-sized containers around the yard and between trucks and trains. A reconfigured truck gate is expected to alleviate congestion that has led drivers to protest outside Seagirt twice in recent years.
“We have a lot of projects going on right now,” Hogans said. “It’s about the future of the port of Baltimore. ... That’s why Ports America Chesapeake’s making those investments.”
Much of the cargo moved through the Howard Street Tunnel travels to Midwestern markets from Seagirt, the farthest inland East Coast port terminal. Allowing double-stacked trains through the tunnel also will bring more ships to Baltimore, better serving the burgeoning number of distribution centers in Maryland, where e-commerce has surged during the pandemic, the port director said.
“It’s a tremendous addition to the port,” Doyle said.
The port’s exponential growth in recent years has helped Baltimore become a major logistics hub for the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest, said Aaron Tomarchio, senior vice president of Tradepoint Atlantic. Tradepoint has attracted Amazon, FedEx and other companies to open distribution centers at its development at the site of the old Bethlehem Steel mill in Sparrows Point.
“To maintain that growth, and to ensure future sustainability of that growth, you need to make an investment in infrastructure,” he said.
No recent incident has laid bare the need for investment in aging rail infrastructure like the dramatic 2014 collapse of an aging 26th Street retaining wall that dropped parked cars, pavement and earth onto the CSX tracks about a mile from the tunnel’s north entrance.
After a nearby block of the same street sank four years later, neighbors asked the city to convert the fortified, yet still closed, road to a small park.
Children have enjoyed playing, especially during the pandemic, in the block between North Calvert Street and Guilford Avenue, and the Friends of 26th Street have proposed a park layout and raised $35,000 to pay for amenities, said Meghan Ames, the group’s president.
“We really wanted to try and leverage the opportunity, being that there’s less car traffic that comes through,” Ames said.
Not only has the park, promised by the city, not been built, but CSX planned to turn it into a construction site. The Howard Street Tunnel project’s environmental assessment said the block was “required for the staging, stockpiling, and laydown of construction equipment” for the replacement of the Guilford Avenue bridge over the tracks.
The railroad canceled that plan following an inquiry from The Baltimore Sun. CSX spokeswoman Cindy Schild said it instead would “close a small portion of Guilford Avenue between 25th and 26th streets during construction in order to reconstruct the bridge over the railroad and to stage equipment and construction materials.”
The $500,000 park is expected to break ground in May and take several months to complete, said German Vigil, a city Department of Transportation spokesman.
Guilford Avenue is the only road expected to fully close with traffic detoured for a bridge replacement, said Bradley Smith, general manager of strategic initiatives at the port. A replacement of a Harford Road span near REACH! Academy in Clifton Park and a modification to a North Avenue bridge near the Interstate 83 ramp will be completed with phased lane closures, he said.
CSX’s Hammock said the railroad plans to run trains through the tunnel during off-hours in the construction. Because of the logistics involved, the track lowering and bridge replacements and modifications likely will precede construction inside the tunnel.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into making sure that we do this work with the least disruption to the network, to the ports, to our customers,” Hammock said.
Whatever disruptions caused by the project to traffic and life in the city, Baltimore’s mayor understands the need for the project. Brandon Scott is the proud grandson of a former painter at the port.
“I know for a fact that’s the reason why my family is doing as well as it is today,” the Democratic mayor said.
Scott, who noted that the city and state stand to benefit from $65 million in additional annual tax revenue, has high hopes for a windfall of jobs in transportation, logistics and related sectors — and equitable hiring that could offer other Baltimore families a similar financial foothold.
“Creating those opportunities for other families is what we’re able to do, if we do this the right way,” he said, “making sure that these opportunities are given to our residents in our neighborhoods.”
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.