There's an elephant in the room underneath West Baltimore that no one is talking about. While transit supporters and critics fight over the fate of the Red and Purple lines, this elephant grows bigger. The elephant in question is the Baltimore and Potomac tunnel ("From vibrations to mosquitoes, plans to replace B&P tunnel draw concern," Dec. 9). The B&P tunnel is a two-track railroad tunnel that was built in 1873. It connects Baltimore and points north with Washington, D.C. This tunnel is a vital rail link for Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and without it, MARC service could not function.
This tunnel has been in continuous use since 1873, and its age is showing. Some estimates show the tunnels may not survive more than 10-to-15 more years. The tunnel is a bottleneck, allowing only two trains at a time. It has sharp curves which slow trains and, worst of all, constant drainage and leakage problems. If the B&P tunnel were to be condemned, it would become a nightmare for Maryland. MARC trains are frequently standing room only. Forcing these commuters onto the highway would overwhelm our roads, and the MARC Camden line most likely could not accommodate these extra riders.
Gov. Larry Hogan has shown he is favorable to highways, and this is not a problem. Maryland has many crumbling roads that desperately need improving, and like it or not, cars aren't going anywhere any time soon. That said, roads can only be expanded so much. If Mr. Hogan is devoted to making Maryland a business friendly environment, he will see the importance of MARC's park and ride model which allows commuters to park their cars and ride downtown in bringing business to Maryland.
The tunnels won't be cheap to replace. Estimates start at $1.5 billion and will most likely go up. Baltimore is not a tunnel builder's dream either. The B&O railroad went bankrupt tunneling under Howard Street, but the economic value of MARC and maintaining Washington and Baltimore's link with the Northeast corridor can't be underestimated. This is the investment Maryland needs to make. It is time we shelve the Red and Purple lines and focus on this all important project. We must fix the foundation before we add on shiny new things.
How do we pay for it? That will be a difficult question in a time of falling budget returns but there are options. Money diverted from the Red and Purple lines should be able to cover a good deal of the cost. In the spirit of Mr. Hogan's emphasis on business, Maryland should reach out to CSX. CSX has long wanted to expand the Port of Baltimore, an action that would bring many good paying jobs but is hampered by the Howard Street tunnel. It simply isn't tall enough to allow some cars through and the geology and the city infrastructure restricts the ability to expand it. Bringing CSX to the table could provide Maryland with additional funds to replace the tunnel and provide CSX with a new route to the northeast for its freight traffic. A connection between CSX and Amtrak once existed in Gwynns Falls and could easily be restored to give not only freight access, but also allow MARC to move train sets between the Penn and Camden lines without a wasteful empty trip to Washington.
It's time we get our transportation priorities in order. We don't need to be looking at massive expansions and new projects when our basic infrastructure is falling apart. Fix the tunnels, then let's talk about the Red and Purple lines. Fix the tunnels, then let's talk about new stations. Yes, it may be a bitter pill to swallow for transit advocates and there may be some distaste with such a large project in Annapolis, but this is a can we can only kick down the road so long before it has a very major and very negative impact on our region. If Amtrak, Maryland and CSX work together, we can replace the B&P tunnels before they disrupt East Coast transportation.