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Howard Street tunnel expansion project gets key environmental approval

Baltimore’s Howard Street tunnel expansion project took a significant step forward Wednesday after a federal review found it would have no significant impact on the environment.

The long-awaited project will allow trains with shipping containers stacked two-high to pass through the CSX-owned tunnel, a key artery to and from the Port of Baltimore. Workers also will raise three Baltimore bridges to allow these trains to proceed, and 19 more along the railroad’s line to Philadelphia.

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The environmental review was conducted between March 1 and April 13 in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Construction is likely to start in earnest later this year, Gov. Larry Hogan’s office said in a news release, although some preparations have begun. As of April, workers already had lowered a stormwater line in the tunnel.

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“The Howard Street Tunnel expansion is a major infrastructure project that will significantly increase business for the Port of Baltimore,” Hogan said in the release. “This project will have a tremendous impact on Maryland’s economy, improve the flow of goods, and generate thousands of jobs in the Baltimore region.”

Supporters also have argued the project could prove an environmental boon, since it will increase rail capacity, thereby taking some trucks off the road.

The endeavor does, however, come with a $466 million price tag, including $202.5 million from Maryland, $125 million in a federal Infrastructure For Rebuilding America grant, $113 million from CSX, $22.5 million from Pennsylvania and $3 million in Federal Highway Administration formula funds for Baltimore City. Officials had long haggled over the price, which was once expected to exceed $1 billion, and how to share it. CSX, the successor of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that built the tunnel, almost abandoned the effort in 2017, but ended up receiving the influx of federal cash in 2019.

The tunnel, which opened in 1895, has at times been a source of consternation for the city. Even as it was constructed, a nearby building was damaged and later had to be demolished. In 2001, a train derailed in the tunnel, causing a chemical fire that raged for days, halting passage and even baseball games at nearby Oriole Park.

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Officials have sought double-stacking capacity for the tunnel, which would place it on par with competing East Coast ports, for decades, but negotiations frequently stalled. (Stacking the truck-sized metal boxes used in international commerce two high on trains is the most efficient way to transport them over land.) But now, with shipping container volumes surging, thanks in part to a 2016 Panama Canal expansion, the update is sorely needed.

Maryland Port Administration executive director William P. Doyle said in a news release that the project will “get the Port over its longtime hurdle, the lack of double-stack rail.”

“The reconstructed tunnel will grow our container business, opening up incredible business opportunities into the Midwest,” he said.

It’s also estimated to add jobs — 6,550 during construction and another 7,300 afterward thanks to increased shipping traffic, according to the governor’s news release.

“This is a great step forward to seeing the first double stack CSX train move through the Howard Street Tunnel,” said Brian Hammock, director of state relations for CSX.

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