Here’s a Riddle for You, Baltimore

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This winter, I visited a friend living in Panama and did the obligatory tour of the famous canal. The container ships moving through the locks are mind-bogglingly huge, like barges on steroids. But they’re not big enough — which is why Panama is in the midst of widening its canal, in order to accommodate even more gigantic ships. There are only two ports on the East Coast that are already deep enough to host these new mega-ships, and Baltimore is one of them; other cities are having to spend millions to dredge their ports to stay competitive. So far so good, right?  Except…

While the Port of Baltimore is ideal for the new super-sized world of international shipping, the Howard Street Tunnel is not. The nineteenth century railway tunnel is one main way the freight containers get to the port — and the tunnel’s too short for modern trains. “In many respects, the tunnel is the nation’s infrastructure crisis in microcosm — a problem that has come home to roost after being ignored for decades,” writes Ashley Halsey III in the Washington Post. It’s hardly a matter of just raising the roof; the tunnel is woven into the fabric of the city:  above the subway; below the light rail; wrapped around sewers and water lines and electric cables. Replacing the tunnel — which, by the by, is also getting kind of dangerously crumbly — is priced at a whopping $1 to $3 billion.

This isn’t just Baltimore’s problem; the economic block caused by the outdated tunnel has a national impact, because the tunnel sits smack in the middle of the only direct freight route that runs up and down the East Coast. (A 2001 tunnel fire meant that trains bound for Philly had to be re-routed through Cleveland. Not very efficient.)

There are various plans afoot to make Baltimore an attractive first port of call for shipping companies. (The Post outlines them nicely here.) The potential impact that a revived shipping industry could have on our city is hard to overstate. How would you solve the problem of the Howard Street Tunnel?



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  1. Build a dedicated freight-line bypass around the city; reuse the Howard Street tunnel for passenger rail by putting the Light Rail downtown underground, where it should have been in the first place.

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