The Daily Record: A turning point for the Howard Street Tunnel

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on May 20, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry

The Howard Street Tunnel, which runs through the heart of downtown Baltimore, is 1.7 miles long and offers freight trains about 19.5 feet of clearance. One single track runs through it.

So when it comes to the rail network in the Baltimore area, the tunnel — physically speaking — is one small link in a rather extensive system.

But the effect of this tunnel on the Baltimore regional economy is broad and deep — far more than most people may realize.

It’s for this reason the tunnel has been a source of deep concern for years to city and state elected officials, transportation experts and business leaders.

The reason: Freight trains – about 20 per day — use this tunnel to transport goods, from clothing and sporting equipment to electronics and more, to and from the Port of Baltimore.

The port is a vital economic engine for the Baltimore region and the state. More than 13,000 jobs are directly tied to day-to-day port operations; statewide an estimated 33,900 jobs are port-related, figures show.

So what’s the concern?

The tunnel, a marvel of human industry when completed in 1865, presents a height problem. It can’t accommodate freight trains that transport cargo containers stacked two high on each rail car. Double stacking of cargo containers offers improved efficiency to freight carriers.

The inability to “double stack” rail through the Howard Street Tunnel presented a worrisome disadvantage over ports the Port of Baltimore competes with for business, such as Norfolk and New York.

So you can see where the source of all the worry lies. Although the Port of Baltimore may be one of only two ports on the East Coast to accommodate larger ships, if freight could not then be transported efficiently by means of double stacking the state of Maryland and the Port of Baltimore would not see the full potential of the investment in the port.

The solution, of course, is to modify the Howard Street Tunnel so it can accommodate double-stack rail. But multiple studies found the cost to do so ranges from $1 billion to $3 billion. Nobody wanted to foot that bill.

Thankfully, the tunnel’s owner, CSX Transportation, Inc., has come up with a solution based on engineering advancements. This new plan will significantly lower the projected cost of increasing the tunnel’s clearance for double-stack rail.

To add to that good news, the solution also won’t require digging up busy Howard Street to improve the tunnel or interfering with existing train traffic.

The engineering advancements will allow for parts of the tunnel to be lowered while the ceiling can be notched out in other areas, all to provide the 21-foot height clearance needed, said Christopher B. Smith, director of strategic infrastructure initiatives for CSX.

Double-stack rail will be able to move through the tunnel. The project cost, which also includes adjusting the train clearance at some overhead bridges elsewhere on the rail line servicing the port, will drop to an estimated $425 million.

After a feasibility study found that the tunnel is structurally sound and has many years of useful life ahead, CSX and the state have agreed to jointly fund the project.

The state has applied for $155 million in federal funds for the project under a program called FASTLANE. The new federal program aims to speed up transportation projects that will generate, among other things, national or economic benefits.

‘Hallelujah’ news

While word on federal funding approval won’t come until this summer, it’s hard not to underscore what “hallelujah” news all of this is for the entire Baltimore region and the state.

It’s a turning point for a problem that has plagued our freight network for decades.

Bradley Smith, Director of the office of freight and multimodalism for the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), said the project will yield “system-wide benefits” for transportation and the economy.

For one, it will secure the Port of Baltimore’s ability to compete aggressively in the future for double-stack rail cargo business.

Addressing the Howard Street Tunnel’s limitations is vital, Smith said, to ensure the Port “stays competitive up and down the East Coast.” An improved tunnel should also open up markets in the Midwest for the port to seek new business.

More containers coming in and out of Baltimore should be a plus for jobs and the economy, Smith said.

Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Port of Baltimore, said CSX’s engineering solution and the overall project, if it advances, should prove to be a “game changer” for the port.

Ports up and down the East Coast are locked in an “arms race” to compete for container business, Scher said.

The port has several advantages, he noted. Baltimore is one of three ports on the East Coast that has a 50-foot-deep channel (in the Chesapeake Bay) and thus provides access to the world’s largest container ships. It also has super-sized cranes to serve the big ships and a 50-foot-deep water berth.

With ports racing to construct 50-foot-deep channels or remove impediments like low-clearance bridges so they can compete for the giant container ship business, the stakes were growing by the day for Baltimore to solve its double-stack rail problem.

Thankfully the state and CSX’s plan for the Howard Street Tunnel offers a viable, innovative solution to a vexing problem that in the not-too-distant future may have cost the port business — and in turn a loss of jobs and revenue.

Instead, the Baltimore region and the state are looking at jobs being protected and perhaps jobs to be gained. It’s the turning point that many have been hoping to see.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to The Daily Record.

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