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Expansion of Baltimore’s Howard Street Tunnel a step closer to reality

Construction could begin later this year, pending permit approval and other final actions

Stakeholders are seeking to expand the Howard Street Tunnel to accommodate double-stacked container trains. (Photo: Maryland Port Administration)

A planned expansion of the Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore is closer to fruition now that the project has received additional environmental approvals.  

The federal government has granted the project a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), which the project needs as part of its review under the National Environmental Policy Act, according to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

With the receipt of the FONSI in place, CSX (NASDAQ: CSX), the owner of the tunnel, could begin construction later this year after it obtains permits and finalizes engineering and other project-related components, according to a website for the project.

State and local leaders hailed the work, which will expand the 126-year-old Howard Street Tunnel to allow for double-stacked container trains, as a way to support growth plans at the Port of Baltimore (see below).

“The Howard Street Tunnel expansion is a major infrastructure project that will significantly increase business for the Port of Baltimore,” Hogan said in a joint release with the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Port Administration (MDOT MPA) and the Federal Railroad Administration. “This project will have a tremendous impact on Maryland’s economy, improve the flow of goods, and generate thousands of jobs in the Baltimore region.”

The project calls for making vertical clearance improvements at the tunnel and at 22 other locations between Baltimore and Philadelphia. In addition to the tunnel, the project entails “superstructure work” at three bridges in Baltimore City, including modifications to the North Avenue bridge and full replacements of the Guilford Avenue and Hartford Road bridges. Track lowering will also occur in locations in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Project costs are estimated at $466 million, which will consist of $202.5 million from Maryland, $125 million from a federal government grant under the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program, $113 million from CSX, $22.5 million from Pennsylvania and $3 million in federal highway formula funding.

A CSX train. (Photo: Maryland Port Administration)

Anticipated costs as high as $4 billion nearly derailed the project. CSX had considered backing out, but project stakeholders expect to bring project costs down by utilizing advances in construction technology, according to Wednesday’s news release.

“This is a great step forward to seeing the first double-stack CSX train move through the Howard Street Tunnel,” said Brian Hammock, CSX director of state relations. “This is another example of how we are working collaboratively with our port, state and federal partners to modernize our rail infrastructure to bring consumer goods they use every day in a more efficient and sustainable manner.”

For its part, CSX has viewed double stacking at the Howard Street Tunnel as part of its broader vision called National Gateway to double stack trains along the East Coast.

In addition to receiving the FONSI, the project’s environmental assessment went through a public review and comment period in March and April as part of the federal environmental review process.

Port officials view expansion favorably

The expansion of the Howard Street Tunnel and the ability to run double-stacked trains could provide exporters and importers with more options to access desired markets in the Midwest, in addition to “seamless” access from Maine to Florida, according to port officials.

Imports at the Port of Baltimore over the past year (blue: ICSTM.USBAL). This chart, which is updated daily, is a seven-day moving average of shipments passing through U.S. Customs at the port. (Source: SONAR)
To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.

Officials say the port ranks first among U.S. ports for volumes of autos and light trucks, roll-on/roll-off heavy farm and construction machinery, and imported gypsum. It is 11th among major U.S. ports for foreign cargo handled and 10th for total foreign cargo value.

The port also has a contract with Metsa Group of Finland and Logistec Corp. that it signed in October that will bring in more than 370,000 tons of rolled paper to Maryland annually for use in the production of corrugated cardboard boxes and food service and e-commerce packaging.

“The reconstructed tunnel will grow our container business, opening up incredible business opportunities into the Midwest. It also will help reduce fuel consumption by 137 million gallons via this rail throughput,” said MDOT MPA Executive Director William P. Doyle. “A Howard Street Tunnel that’s able to handle double-stack trains will grow jobs at the port and get the port over its longtime hurdle, the lack of double-stack rail.”

The tunnel’s expansion comes as the port is eyeing growth plans of its own. 

The port completed this past spring a dredging project that resulted in a second 50-foot-deep berth at Seagirt Marine Terminal in order to allow the port to handle two supersized ships simultaneously. The terminal is a 50-year public-private partnership between MDOT MPA and Ports America Chesapeake that began in 2010. 

The port also expects four more Neopanamax cranes to arrive this summer and be operational by the end of 2021.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.