Gov. Larry Hogan promised Monday to find a way to expand the more than century-old Howard Street Tunnel underneath Baltimore, a "transformative" project he said could spur an almost limitless production increase at the port.
After touring what he called the "infamous" tunnel that bottlenecks freight coming out of the port of Baltimore, Hogan predicted the federal government would help pay the $425 million price tag to make it deeper.
"This is something that we're going to make sure gets done," Hogan told reporters at the Seagirt Marine Terminal. "It's critically important, not only to the port of Baltimore and the city of Baltimore, but the entire state of Maryland. It really could be transformative to our economy."
Hogan emphasized the state's plans to reapply for $155 million in federal FASTLANE funding, a new federal grant program that last year doled out $800 million to 18 projects. Neither of Maryland's applications received any money last year.
But Hogan, a Republican, said he's confident the project will be funded in the second year of the grant program, citing the application's high ranking and his personal appeals to Democratic President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
"We believe that this time, we will be successful," Hogan said. "I had lunch with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the importance of this infrastructure project. I discussed it with the president in the Oval Office.
"Our indication is that our project scored very high, that we just missed the funds last time, and we're going to push like heck to make sure we get them next time."
The Howard Street Tunnel has vexed public officials for decades — a costly infrastructure problem holding back the economic fortunes of the port.
Although the newly deepened port of Baltimore is one of just a handful that can accommodate giant ships moving through the newly widened Panama Canal, the Howard Street Tunnel bottleneck limits how quickly cargo can move through the port.
The tunnel, dug in the 1890s, was built to accommodate trains of that era. It does not have enough clearance to allow the passage of double-stacked freight containers, so cargo coming out of the port moves at half the pace that it can leave other facilities.
If the tunnel were expanded, 178,000 containers that now leave the port on tractor-trailers each year could be moved by rail.
Previous estimates put at more than $1 billion the cost of creating two feet more clearance in the tunnel.
Rail giant CSX Corp., which owns the tunnel and the track, thought the entire roof of the tunnel would have to be removed and rebuilt. But new construction and engineering techniques used by CSX to expand other aging tunnels dramatically brought down the cost for Howard Street, CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said.
The new plan calls for dropping the floor of the tunnel, notching archways to allow the rectangular shipping containers to pass through, trimming back ceilings and using lower-profile metal crossties instead of wooden ones. The existing ceiling would be reinforced.
CSX and Maryland transportation officials pitched this cheaper plan to the federal government earlier this year. The state promised to cover $145 million of the project and CSX would pay for $125 million. They are hoping the federal government will cover the remaining $155 million.
Hogan said that even if federal authorities do not agree to pay that, he would find another solution.
"We'd hate to say that we're going to do it without the feds or they wouldn't want to help us," he said. "We're hopeful to get the federal money. It's a very small chance that we won't. But if we don't, we'll go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to get this done."
Hogan's commitment comes as Maryland deals with a looming budget problem — the economy did not grow as quickly as state forecasters had predicted. Last month, state officials announced they would have about $785 million less over the next two years than previously anticipated.
Construction work on the tunnel project would generate about 500 jobs, Maryland and CSX officials said. The additional capacity to move cargo would generate about 3,000 jobs in and around the port, Hogan said.
It would take up to five years to construct the tunnel once funding is approved. CSX would need to expand several other bridges between Baltimore and Philadelphia for double-stacked shipping containers to travel unimpeded along the entire East Coast, Doolittle said.
Hogan said Baltimore's location in the Mid-Atlantic allows cargo shipped to the port to reach about a third of the country's population overnight.
"There's just almost no limit to the increased production of the port, and how much it will help our economy and how many jobs it will create," he said.