Maryland transportation officials have declined a quixotic plan proposed by a startup rail company to dig a tunnel through downtown Baltimore and reroute Amtrak trains through a downtown hub that would replace the city’s Penn Station.
The plan hinged on support from the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland Transit Administration to halt impending construction to replace a portion of Amtrak’s aging Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel. Instead, Scott Spencer and AmeriStarRail LLC, his four-person startup company, urged the state agency to use an influx of federal infrastructure money to dig a four-track, 10-mile tunnel through Baltimore that links the Northeast Corridor to a new station downtown.
The Northeast Corridor is Amtrak’s busiest stretch of railroad, which spans 457 miles and transports 2,100 passenger trains daily through eight states. Passenger and freight trains have to slow to a crawl through the B&P Tunnel at 30 mph. The tunnel’s design also constricts from four tracks to two, giving Baltimore a reputation as the corridor’s worst bottleneck.
AmeriStarRail attracted the railroad industry’s attention in 2021 for its ambitious proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor by leasing a portion of the railroad to run 160 mph trains and add 30 stations to the route. Amtrak, which published a white paper in 2019 in response to proposals it occasionally receives from small private rail operators, rejected AmeriStarRail’s bid.
Then, the Delaware-based startup in February publicly touted a Baltimore-specific infrastructure plan called the “Baltimore Grand Slam.”
The megaproject would involve digging a four-track tunnel for 10 miles through downtown Baltimore, skirting the B&P Tunnel and abandoning Amtrak’s Pennsylvania Station to establish a new station on the lucrative Northeast Corridor downtown. Under the proposal, two of the underground tracks would service Amtrak trains, a third would service MDOT’s MARC trains and a fourth track would run a newly created metro.
Holly Arnold, the administrator of MDOT, wrote in a two-page letter in March that the agency is not going to stop Amtrak’s tunnel replacement, which is already funded and took years to plan. Penn Station is also in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation.
Amtrak is replacing a 4-mile section of the Northeast Corridor, including the nearly 150-year-old, mile-long B&P Tunnel, with two tubes that will allow trains to travel at 100 mph, rather than 30 mph. The $4 billion project will begin construction next year and take a decade to complete. The B&P Tunnel will be renamed for Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1838 by crossing the Chesapeake Bay by boat and boarding a train in Baltimore that traveled to New York.
“Improvements to the Frederick Douglass Tunnel will result in improved and more reliable rail service, address a long-standing bottleneck along the MARC Penn Line and Amtrak Northeast Corridor, and allow for more and faster trains between Maryland and major cities such as Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City,” Arnold wrote.
But logistical barriers haven’t stopped Spencer from his belief that AmeriStarRail’s plan can revitalize downtown Baltimore and transform the way people travel through the city.
“When it’s built people will talk about, ‘Can you believe it? They almost built a replacement that would bypass Baltimore’s future.’ And people will be relieved, like, ‘This is tremendous,’” Spencer said after receiving Arnold’s rejection letter.
The company has also proposed a major project to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for an alternative rail route to LaGuardia Airport. Spencer, who worked on the SEPTA Regional Rail, which runs through downtown Philadelphia, started his company in 2017 with Neil Glassman, a Wilmington-based bankruptcy attorney. The four-person company includes Paul Reistrup, a former Amtrak president, and J. William Vigrass, a former assistant general manager at Port Authority Transit Corporation Speedline.
The proposed metro route would have stretched west from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County eastward throughout Charles Center and ended at Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus off Interstate 895.
In her rejection letter, Arnold said MDOT published an East-West Corridor Study in 2021 proposing similar bus and rail routes from Bayview through downtown Baltimore to Ellicott City that will be presented to the public in the coming months.
Rerouting the Northeast Corridor, owned and operated by CSX and Amtrak, would require the companies’ approval. Amtrak has not acknowledged AmeriStarRail’s proposal to create a crosstown tunnel in Baltimore. The company did not respond when asked whether it reviewed the Baltimore Grand Slam plan or would consider it.
A spokesman for Mayor Brandon Scott said the office has not received substantive information about the plan and declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Federal Railroad Administration said the agency was not involved in the proposal.
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Even if state and federal transportation officials supported the project, AmeriStarRail would face other realities, such as securing billions of dollars in public funding and managing private financing, all while trying to avoid overrun costs.
Spencer provided few clear details on how the project would be financed, beyond saying the federal and state government would primarily foot the bill. He was also vague on specifics regarding the project’s price tag, but estimated that boring such a wide tunnel for 10 miles would cost upward of $10 billion.
Transportation experts said it’s hard to judge the quality of a proposal without a cost-benefit analysis that AmeriStarRail has yet to present.
“The notion that [AmeriStarRail] would somehow magically generate so much revenue that they could take on a massive project like this, and handle all the equity and debt service payments, and somehow keep the Northeast Corridor going, and the federal government wouldn’t have to put in all these billions of dollars in subsidies — is just insanity,” said Kevin DeGood, director of Infrastructure Policy at Center for American Progress.
Arnold mentioned the “significant capital investment” needed for AmeriStarRail’s tunnel as one of the reasons for MDOT’s lack of interest in the plan.
Spencer said MDOT representatives have not discussed the proposal with him in person and that he hopes to meet with the agency to change its decision.
“This was so consequential, this decision about the future of Baltimore and its tunnels, we couldn’t sit on the sidelines. We had to step in and say, ‘Hey, there is a much better plan that will dramatically reduce traffic congestion, dramatically improve rail access to the heart of Baltimore, dramatically improve transit mobility for Baltimore, East-West,” Spencer said. “We couldn’t let Baltimore miss this opportunity.”