CSX is recommitting to the Howard Street Tunnel expansion plan

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An archived image of the tunnel at Camden Station, Courtesy Library of Congress

A little over a year ago, freight giant CSX backed out of a long-sought plan to expand the 122-year-old Howard Street Tunnel running from the Port of Baltimore beneath the city, calling it a “business decision” not worthy of $455 million worth of public and private investments.

But last night, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin’s office announced CSX has recommitted to widening the 1.7-mile tunnel’s clearance to fit double-stacked train cars carrying cargo from the Port of Baltimore.

In a release, Maryland’s senior senator said he, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Mayor Catherine Pugh and six of the state’s eight congressional representatives met with CSX’s new CEO, Jim Foote, “to discuss a path forward on replacing the Howard Street Tunnel, which has widely been described as ‘ancient.'” (It was under Foote’s predecessor, Hunter Harrison, that CSX pulled out of the deal in November 2017. Harrison died about a month later.)

The release said Foote yesterday “laid out the research done by CSX personnel over the last year and committed to re-engage in the project” and invest $91 million—notably down from the company’s previous commitment of $145 million—into the project.

Baltimore Fishbowl asked CSX for more information about the research Cardin mentioned, and what ultimately has pushed the company to recommit. A spokesperson said they have “no additional updates at this time,” but offered this statement:

“At the request of the Governor and Maryland Delegation in 2017, CSX CEO Jim Foote agreed to review whether or not CSX could support moving forward with the Howard Street Tunnel project. After much deliberation internally, with state partners, and other private entities, CSX can contribute to the project moving forward, recognizing, however, there will be greater need for public investment. We appreciate the efforts of all involved and look forward to finding a solution on how to move forward with this critical infrastructure project.”

The Port of Baltimore’s inland shipping capacity is very much constrained by the fact that the rail thoroughfare can’t currently fit double-stacked cars. The project has been discussed for years, and the Hogan administration had committed $145 million in state funds to help make it happen. The Maryland Department of Transportation had also applied for a $155 million federal FASTLANE grant, but withdrew the application last fall after CSX backed out.

Still, Hogan’s office had said it would seek to find a new way to finance the project.

“Replacement of the Howard Street Tunnel is in the economic interest of Baltimore and the region, as well as safety for the immediate area,” Cardin said in a statement. “It’s now incumbent on all stakeholders—federal, state, local and others in the private-sector who would benefit from this project—to come together to update the finance plan for getting this done in the most efficient and safe manner possible.”

Pugh said in a statement that she’s “grateful to the CSX leadership for recognizing how vital it is that we create a new Howard Street Tunnel once and for all.

“We can no longer neglect essential infrastructure improvements in our City and we welcome this partnership with CSX to get the job done with regard to the Tunnel. This will not only remedy a serious safety hazard, but it’s an investment in our City’s longer-term competitive interests.”

The work would entail lowering the floor of the tunnel and “notching its crown,” or ceiling, per a 2016 release from the governor’s office. Officials say the investment of nearly half a billion dollars—far less than the $1 billion-$3 billion they once estimated it would cost to replace the entire tunnel itself—would reduce the cost of doing business for the port, effectively doubling its rail shipping capacity. It would also create tens of thousands of jobs, they say.

The increased capacity would be a welcome boon for a port that is continually breaking its own records for moving cargo. Last year, it handled 10.7 million tons, a 7 percent increase from the year before, and it’s on pace to beat that mark for all of 2018.

And, now that it’s bringing in supersized container ships from overseas by way of the widened Panama Canal. State and federal governments, as well as the private operator of the Seagirt Marine Terminal, Ports America Chesapeake, are putting nearly $33 million combined into deepening the existing berth for ships. That’ll allow two mega ships to offload simultaneously, meaning even more cargo headed out of the city via the Howard Street Tunnel.

Ethan McLeod
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