Generally speaking, Port Covington stole the most attention this year among Baltimore’s potentially transformative development projects. However, the expansion of the 1.7-mile Howard Street Tunnel was not far behind, and it still remains the project that could arguably have the greatest effect on Baltimore’s economic role relative to the rest of the country.
That’s because the 121-year-old tunnel serves as a gateway for incoming and outgoing freight containers carried by rail from the Port of Baltimore to states inland and up and down the eastern seaboard. Unfortunately, because of two feet of missing space, the tunnel is unable to fit double-stacked cargo containers, an increasingly necessary capability with the advent of extra-large cargo ships now coming into the port from the Panama Canal.
The cost to increase the clearance of the tunnel had once been estimated in the billions, but is now a fraction of that — $445 million, to be exact. Officials have said that instead of needing take off the entire roof of the tunnel, they could instead through lower the floor and create extra space on top. Rail freight giant CSX and the state have already ponied up $290 million of that money, but need the federal government to fill in the gap with a $155 million federal FASTLANE grant.
Five months ago, the feds rejected an application for the same amount from the State of Maryland. The Department of Transportation decided to use its $800 million pool for 18 other projects deemed worthy of funding. But today, Gov. Hogan announced that the state has reapplied for the grant.
“This is an essential project for the Port of Baltimore, Maryland, and the entire East Coast,” said Hogan in a statement. “Reconstructing the Howard Street Tunnel will create thousands of jobs, open up new trade lanes for the Port, and improve overall freight rail service across our nation.”
The chances that the federal government will grant this money remain very unclear, particularly with a new incoming presidential administration. However, Gov. Hogan previously said the project scored well in the FASTLANE application process and just barely missed the cut. The DOT has also requested $50 million more in the federal budget from the grant program, which could free up some space for Baltimore. Furthermore, Mayor Catherine Pugh has already handed Donald Trump a letter requesting he lend the city a hand with money for the tunnel expansion, among other projects.
The city has a strong case for why the Department of Transportation should pick the Howard Street Tunnel from its stack of applications for 2017. The port has made strides, being ranked the most efficient port in the country three times in the last two years and bringing in its first XL cargo ship this past year.
According to an estimate from Hogan’s office, the port would be able to handle 80,000 more containers once the tunnel has been expanded. That would translate to increased freight output, more jobs and benefits for the freight industry extending to other parts of the country.
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