Baltimore asks DOT to plug Howard Tunnel funding gap

Baltimore asks DOT to plug Howard Tunnel funding gap

The Port of Baltimore hopes a $466 project to raise the Howard Street CSX rail tunnel will help it to better compete for container imports to the US East Coast. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Maryland and the Port of Baltimore are asking the federal government to put up $228 million to revamp a CSX rail tunnel to and from the Port of Baltimore to allow for double-stack trains, putting back on track a project that officials say is key to the port attracting more import cargo destined for the Midwest.

The state and port have filed a new application — their third — for federal funds to elevate the roof of the 124-year-old Howard Street Tunnel, which at present can only handle single-stack trains. Officials say the greater cost of moving containers on single-stack trains makes the port uncompetitive.

The proposal, made under the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program, requires CSX Transportation to pay $91 million towards the project and the state to pay $147 million, for a total project cost of $466 million. Port and state officials announced Monday that they had submitted the new application in time for the final deadline the same day. The prior applications sought $155 million in federal support, but officials increased the request after the estimated project cost increased by $41 million and CSX reduced their commitment by about $33 million.

The port and state hope that the tunnel, along with the port’s 50-foot port depth and direct rail links to the Midwest, will help Baltimore to better compete for East Coast containerized cargo, especially against the ports of New York and New Jersey and Norfolk.

Taking the long route

Previous applications for the project put the price tag at $425 million. About half of the $41 million increase will go towards repair projects on 22 bridges between Baltimore and Philadelphia, the Maryland Port Administration (MPA) said. The project is also using a new process that will allow the use of precast concrete for the roof, reducing the amount of time the tunnel must be closed for construction, said Jim White, executive director of the MPA.

The state first applied for funds for the project in 2016 under the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects grant program, part of the Fostering Advancements In Shipping And Transportation For The Long-Term Achievement Of National Efficiencies (FASTLANE) program, but it did not receive a grant in the competitive process, which attracts proposals from states across the US. Maryland then reapplied in 2017 under the INFRA program.

The plan collapsed, however, before the US DOT made a decision on the application, when CSX withdrew from the project as it underwent a broad sweep of changes under the leadership of new CEO E. Hunter Harrison. The company, still adjusting to Harrison’s operating strategy, known as “precision scheduled railroading,” said at the time the project proposal “no longer justifies the level of investment required from CSX and our public partners.”

After Harrison died in December 2017, his successor as CEO, James Foote, met with the state and port to reevaluate the project. “We went from CSX saying this was not a project they wanted to pursue to their CEO saying, ‘How can we make it work?” White said.

Contact Hugh R. Morley at hugh.morley@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @HughRMorley1.