A crowd gathered Tuesday morning outside the new Dorothy I. Height Elementary School building in West Baltimore to protest Amtrak’s plans to replace the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel with a new tunnel under the city with an exhaust shaft near the school.
“Don’t poison our kids,” one sign read. “Make my future clean,” read another.
“People won’t want to come here if they’re living next to something considered dangerous,” Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott said.
The proposed $4.5 billion project would replace the 145-year-old B&P Tunnel, which acts as a bottleneck on the busy Northeast Corridor for Amtrak and MARC passenger trains due to its age and winding design. Trains must slow to a crawl to transit the two-track, 1.4-mile tunnel between Penn Station and points south and west. The tunnel also serves Norfolk Southern Railway freight trains.
The Federal Railroad Administration identified the tunnel as structurally deficient, unable to meet projected transportation demands and unsuited for high-speed usage in March 2017. The agency’s Record of Decision calls for the tunnel to be rebuilt or replaced within the next 10 to 20 years.
The proposed project would entail building a new tunnel sweeping farther north in an arc under West Baltimore. Designed to accommodate growing demand, the new tunnel would be large enough to accommodate four tracks and freight trains with shipping containers stacked two high. Trains would be able to travel at higher speeds without the tight curves of the existing tunnel.
The new route would travel beneath primarily residential and historic neighborhoods such as Reservoir Hill, Penn North, Bridgeview-Greenlawn, Midtown-Edmondson, Penrose-Fayette and Sandtown-Winchester. The proposal would demolish an estimated 22 homes and displace about 13 businesses and four churches.
According to members of Residents Against the Tunnels, the organizers of Tuesday’s protest, these neighborhoods serve economically and ethnically diverse communities, many of whom rent their homes. They worry that the tunnel project would hinder future development, lower the value of their houses and disrupt further growth there.
“I’m not opposed to the tunnel per se, but freight, that’s a different ball game,” said protester Ronald Miles, 71, of Baltimore. “Putting it in the center of a disenfranchised community, that doesn’t make much sense at all.”
“This area should stay intact,” Scott added. “It’s a prize for Baltimore.”
Beth Toll, public relations manager at Amtrak, said in an email that while Amtrak has not yet secured the funding needed to complete the design or schedule the beginning of construction for the project, some design tasks are progressing using limited available funding until a partnership between Amtrak and the Maryland Transit Administration jointly invest in the tunnel.
Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said it’s up to Amtrak to secure funding and move the proposal forward.
Though the project’s timeline remains uncertain, the protesters want to raise awareness of its potential impact on West Baltimore schoolchildren, who spent a year away from the Dorothy I. Height Elementary School campus as it underwent renovation. Donning red shirts and surgical masks, they also hoped to catch parents’ attention as they dropped their children off for the first day of classes at the school, which is within a block from a proposed five-story exhaust shaft for the tunnel.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s Record of Decision acknowledges the proposal would have “disproportionately high and adverse effects” as a result of impacts to housing, land use and zoning, community facilities, visual quality and noise. However, the net change in emissions would still fall below minimal levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Members of Residents Against the Tunnels argued the study did not account for the use of the additional tracks or changes in transport demand and diesel consumption over time.
“They misinformed the public of the scope of this,” said spokeswoman Laura Amlie, a Baltimore resident and member of Residents Against the Tunnels since its founding in 2015. “The objection to the tunnels is a much bigger picture.”
Amlie said the group seeks a supplemental environmental impact statement that accounts for varying higher levels of freight train volume as well as additional information on environmental impacts such as air quality and increased noise and vibrations. The last statement examined a two-track replacement, which Amlie said lowered the numbers.
“We are pro-transportation and pro-Baltimore. We just think this is a really bad plan,” Amlie said.
The group’s concerns range from the daily disturbances of noise, construction and train vibrations shaking their historic homes to long-term fears about air pollution. Even if freight rail operations do not increase as a result of the project, residents fear the transport of hazardous materials under their homes at higher speeds and the potential for explosions and other accidents.
Amlie added that the group hopes to inspire the federal government to discard this proposal and create safer alternatives, such as above-ground freight train transport that makes limited contact with residential areas.
“If the government is serious about making Baltimore a more freight-friendly port, don’t drag it through the city, it makes it less livable,” Amlie said. “They’re prioritizing corporate money over citizen safety.”