More than 60 residents of West Baltimore turned out Saturday to urge transportation officials to scrap a plan that would re-route a train tunnel beneath their homes, businesses and neighborhood centers.
"I strongly oppose the tunnel project," said Lauren Haney Provost, president of the board of directors of the St. Francis Neighborhood Center. She fears that the noise levels and vibrations from speeding trains would disrupt a host of activities that knit the community together.
"The new tunnel would be built directly across the street from our after-school program, our jobs program, our computer training program and our farm," she said.
Provost and her husband bought their home in Reservoir Hill two years ago and have invested a significant sum in renovations and improvements.
"The tunnel would run directly underneath my house, and I'm concerned about what it would do to the structural integrity," she said. "My home begins to vibrate if a bus passes by. What happens if we dig 100, 150 feet below it?"
None of the people who attended the public hearing Saturday at Frederick Douglass High School had anything good to say about the proposal to rebuild the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel in the interest of speeding up and increasing the number of trains in the busy Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston. The hearing was one of three convened by Amtrak and state, federal, and local transportation officials who said they were there just to listen, not to defend or debate the proposal.
About 155 Amtrak passenger and MARC commuter trains plus two freight trains now pass daily through the 1.4-mile tunnel, which opened in 1873. Because the tunnel curves sharply, the maximum possible speed through that passage is about 30 miles an hour. The proposal would smooth out those turns by building a new route arcing around to the north. The locomotives could double their speeds, and the total number of daily trains would increase to about 388.
Though the 142-year-old tunnel is safe, transit officials say it isn't going to last forever. They also say the construction project could be a boon to West Baltimore by creating jobs in neighborhoods that need them.
Transit officials are weighing three routes that would displace anywhere from zero to 48 homes, from zero to 10 businesses and from one to five community centers. The relocation project would cost between $3.7 million and $4.2 million, depending on the path chosen. A final decision will be made in spring 2017.
Residents argue that even the seemingly least intrusive option would devastate their communities by subjecting the buildings to shaking and their occupants to intolerable racket.
Jim Floyd, a Reservoir Hill resident and retired engineer who has written environmental impact statements, knows that reports can be worded to "obfuscate the salient issues." He says the current alternatives "do not pass the smell test." He wants Amtrak and the Maryland Department of Transportation to come up with a route that goes around Baltimore instead of through the city.
Floyd noted that project officials estimate the savings in transit time would amount to just $32.5 million annually, while the expense of building a replacement tunnel would be at least $3.7 billion.
"I expect and fear that power and money will prevail in this case. But I hope we can find a better way," he said.
It wouldn't be the first time, residents said, that poorly thought-out transportation projects have wreaked havoc on Baltimore's low-income and minority neighborhoods.
They point to Interstate 170, commonly known as "The Highway to Nowhere" constructed in the 1970s and the cancellation just eight months ago of the light rail Red Line that would have helped residents of the economically depressed West Side get to school and work.
Two mayoral candidates spoke at the hearing: City Council member Nick Mosby and state. Sen. Catherine Pugh, both of whom represent neighborhoods that would bear the brunt of the construction. They said already struggling residents shouldn't have their community upended just to shave an average two minutes off the commuting time for people who don't live in Maryland.
The third and final public hearing will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Feb. 17 at Carver Vocational-Technical High School, 2201 Presstman St. Written comments are being accepted through Feb. 26.