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Howard Street tunnel a chokepoint for East Coast commerce

Baltimore’s Howard Street tunnel is a chokepoint for commerce along the East Coast that’s getting more attention as the shipping industry prepares for mega-container ships that will have easier access to the Atlantic Ocean once the Panama Canal is widened.

The Port of Baltimore is one of two Atlantic ports that can already handle the megaships, but the 1895 railway tunnel can’t accommodate modern freight cars to move their cargo. The ships carry 50 percent more containers than ships that Atlantic ports now see. And operators will want to offload most of their 14,000 containers at their first stop, making dockside double-stacking of rail cars attractive.

Baltimore’s port has the depth to manage mega-container ships, but double-stacked freight cars won’t fit through the tunnel.

Trains must take turns going through the 1.7 mile single-track tunnel beneath downtown streets that is still the only direct freight rail route between Washington and Philadelphia. It is surrounded by infrastructure ranging from sewers and optic fiber to the city’s light rail and subway lines, pushing up the cost of replacing the tunnel.

“It’s old. It’s decrepit. It has safety problems. It has security problems,” said James L. Oberstar, a former congressman and chairman of the House Transportation Committee who pushed for funding to replace the tunnel. “This is a prime opportunity to do something really significant and beneficial, not just for Baltimore but for the whole country.”

Replacing the tunnel could cost $1 billion to $3 billion. So Maryland and CSX, which owns the tunnel, plan a 70-acre transfer station on the inland side of the tunnel. Cars would be single-stacked through the tunnel and a second container of domestic freight would be added on the other side.

“It’s up to the railroad,” said Jim White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. “Because as a first port of call, you have to have competitive rail rates in order to get that business.”

To Oberstar, the Baltimore tunnel issue exemplifies global challenges facing the shipping industry.

“Only two U.S. ports are in the top 20 worldwide container ports, Long Beach and Los Angeles,” Oberstar said. “Just from the standpoint of Baltimore, the port has deteriorated in the movement of goods to one of the lowest in the country. This country has just sat by and let it deteriorate as if, ‘We’ve built it once, we don’t have to touch it again.’ Well, the rest of the world doesn’t think that way.

“Do we want to compete in the world marketplace or not?”