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Lawmakers say CSX is keeping an 'open mind' on Howard Street Tunnel project

Members of Maryland’s congressional delegation and Mayor Catherine Pugh emerged from a meeting with CSX Transportation officials Tuesday encouraged that the railroad is keeping an open mind about whether to proceed with expanding the Howard Street Tunnel.

Though the lawmakers received no commitment from the rail company, both sides vowed to continue discussions. CSX abruptly pulled out of the $425 million project this fall after years of planning by state and federal officials.

The project has long been pitched as essential to the port of Baltimore’s future growth and as an economic driver for the wider region. Supporters want the larger tunnel to accommodate a growing volume of shipping containers following last year’s expansion of the Panama Canal.

Underscoring the project’s longstanding bipartisan support, the meeting with CSX’s acting CEO, Jim Foote, brought together the state’s mostly Democratic congressional delegation, Pugh and Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County.

“We expressed our disappointment — and that’s putting it mildly,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. “The bottom line is [Foote] agreed to have an open mind.”

The company, the successor of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, attributed the decision to back away from the Howard Street Tunnel expansion to an operating plan implemented in May by the company’s new CEO, Hunter Harrison. Harrison died last week and Foote has vowed to continue his agenda.

Cardin said Foote repeated during the closed meeting — held in an ornate meeting room on Capitol Hill — that CSX does not believe the ability to double-stack containers through the tunnel is necessary. He said that the railroad discussed, in broad terms, a number of alternatives that it is considering.

“The people of Maryland and the city are feeling whiplashed because of their reversal,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, also a Maryland Democrat. “The upside of the gathering was a willingness to take a fresh look at the facts, keep an open mind toward the possibility of reconsideration.”

Pugh, also a Democrat, applauded the “openness” of the discussion.

“The best thing that was said this afternoon was that they would give it some reconsideration, that it was not a final [decision] at this point,” Pugh said.

CSX was more circumspect in its reading of the meeting. In a statement, the company described the discussion as “productive” but did not directly answer a question from The Baltimore Sun about whether company officials are “reconsidering” their position.

“CSX appreciates the partnership we have developed with the state, city and port and we look forward to continuing the dialogue with them about our plans moving forward,” spokesman Bryan Tucker said in an emailed statement.

The project, which would have raised the ceiling and lowered the floor of the tunnel, was long considered a goal of both the port of Baltimore and CSX. The railroad and the state had agreed to kick in $270 million, and seek the remaining $155 million from the federal government.

That arrangement is similar to the kind of public-private partnerships President Donald J. Trump has touted as a way to invest in the nation’s infrastructure. Harris noted that he expects the White House to fill in the details of those infrastructure plans early next year.

“We think Baltimore is a logical place to make that infrastructure investment — to make sure that we grow the throughput of the port,” Harris said. “Our interests are aligned and that’s encouraging.”

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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