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Public input sought on key Amtrak, MARC tunnel replacement in Baltimore

State and federal transportation officials studying the replacement of an aged rail tunnel beneath Baltimore are opening the discussion to local residents and Amtrak and MARC commuters.

The 1.4-mile Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel, considered a key bottleneck for commuter and freight traffic up and down the nation's busy Northeast Corridor, is 141 years old and a curvy, tight fit for today's modern trains — limiting their capacity and reducing their speed.

The aging tunnel cuts beneath the Sandtown-Winchester, Upton and Bolton Hill neighborhoods of west and central Baltimore, between the West Baltimore MARC Station and Baltimore's Penn Station. It carries about 85 Amtrak trains, 57 MARC trains and one or two Norfolk Southern freight trains per day, officials said.

A $60 million engineering study to replace the tunnel, funded by the Federal Railroad Administration under its High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program, began last fall and is expected to be completed by mid-2017. An environmental impact study also will be conducted.

Residents will be able to learn and ask questions about the project on June 19, when an "open house" will be held at Coppin State University, officials said. The event will take place from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the second-floor atrium of the university's Talon Center, at 2500 W. North Ave. in Baltimore.

Officials also launched a website for project information:

Amtrak owns the tunnel and has estimated its replacement will cost about $1.5 billion. The commuter rail company is working with the FRA and the Maryland Department of Transportation to conduct the studies, which officials said Wednesday will include substantial input from the public.

"The B&P; Tunnel is as much a critical link to the Northeast rail corridor today as it was in 1873 when it was built," said Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo in a statement. "The study being undertaken today is the first step in replacing this aging infrastructure with a new tunnel that meets the increased demand for capacity and enhances the efficiency of rail operations on one of the busiest rail corridors in the world. A key component of the study will be to assess input from the people of Baltimore, and we look forward to that feedback."

Maryland Transportation Secretary Jim Smith said, also in a statement, that public input will be "key to the success" of the studies — which Joseph Boardman, Amtrak's president and CEO, said will be an "important step forward" in improving service along the corridor.

"As owners and stewards of this vital piece of infrastructure, we know that a new or rehabilitated tunnel is what we need to maintain and ultimately improve reliability, speed and safety for all trains — Amtrak, MARC and others — that use it," Boardman said in a statement. "This study is an important step forward toward realizing that goal, and will help to expand economic development opportunities for the greater Baltimore region."

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