In the time I have lived in Baltimore, there have now been two failures of the retaining wall adjacent to the CSX Belt Line tracks, and at least two derailments inside the Howard Street Tunnel on the same line, one of which sparked a chemical fire that lasted nearly a week and required a large area of downtown to be evacuated (“East 26th Street in Baltimore sinking again near site of 2014 collapse — raising questions about inspections,” Nov. 26).
Also in that time, public concern over crude oil trains has risen after a series of high profile derailments and explosions, with activist groups circulating frightening maps of all the homes, businesses, educational institutions, stadiums, etc. that lie within the line's one-mile "blast zone." The Port of Baltimore has set numerous records for the amount of cargo it has handled but remains inhibited by the Baltimore bottleneck, which does not allow for double stacked trains. Meanwhile, the one promised major upgrade to public transit in the area, the Red Line, was summarily killed by Gov. Larry Hogan, who cited as his major concern the cost of constructing a tunnel under downtown.
These issues seem so clearly interrelated to me. I cannot believe that more people aren't talking about what to me seems to be the obvious solution: create a new harbor crossing for CSX and give the Belt Line to the Maryland Transit Administration. The Federal Railroad Administration undertook a thorough study of all sorts of options for improving rail travel in the Baltimore region in 2003 and compiled a report that concluded that tunneling under the harbor, down near where the ports actually are, is one of the more feasible options.
Although the Great Circle solution for the northeast corridor is making slow but steady progress, it seems nothing has come of this report on the freight side of things. The harbor crossing may cost more than simply lowering the floor of the Howard Street Tunnel, but the benefits to increased safety and mobility for huge swaths of Baltimore should more than offset this cost difference. Governor Hogan wants the ports to succeed; he wants the double stack solution. Previous efforts to build an intermodal facility in Morrell Park under Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fell apart, and were a pretty half-hearted solution to begin with. And Mr. Hogan's own attempts to secure funding to renovate the Howard Street Tunnel seem to have stalled. He also wants to appear as if his decision to kill the Red Line doesn't mean he doesn't care about Baltimore.
Well, there already is a downtown tunnel that just needs some upgrading. He also seems to love public-private partnerships, and although CSX is a company that appears quite unwilling to invest anything in their infrastructure, they and the shipping companies might be compelled to work with the state and federal governments to get this done if the right mix of incentives and pressure is applied. MTA control of the Belt Line will not of course replace the Red Line. West Baltimore especially will continue to be left out of the local rail transit mix. But it's better than nothing.
The light rail can be moved underground in the congested downtown area, where it is currently sometimes slower than walking, and it can have more direct connections with the Metro. There could also be a second line connecting to Charles Village, East Baltimore, Belair-Edison, Bayview, etc. After all, this line was originally built by the B&O Railroad and carried passengers until the 1950s. It would also give the Metro something to connect to if its eastern end is ever extended in the future. If you look at a map of the city where all the port facilities are and where all the freight lines go, they're all right across the harbor from each other, except for the Belt Line, which itself doesn't seem to really service any industry along the way anymore, but just connects each side to the other.
It's time we simply connected the dots, something we've found the will and the funding to do for cars three times already.
Chris Nelson, Baltimore