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The future at the end of the tunnel

Don Fry Big

A giant cargo container ship – almost four football fields long – eased into the Port of Baltimore earlier this week and was met by a number of high ranking Maryland officials, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. The state leaders were excited to welcome and celebrate the ship’s arrival.

The reason: The Ever Lambent – all 1,095 feet of her — is among a new class of massive cargo ships beginning to sail the oceans to transport goods around the globe. The ship came to Baltimore via the newly expanded Panama Canal, which can now provide these massive vessels faster transit between Pacific ports and Atlantic ports.

The Port of Baltimore is well-positioned in this 21st century era of shipping as it is one of only three ports on the East Coast that can accommodate these new giants of the sea. One of the state’s economic engines, the port generates almost 33,900 jobs statewide and provides almost $300 million in state and local taxes.

Its ability to handle vessels like the Ever Lambent provides a significant competitive edge for the growth of the state and regional economy.

Howard Street Tunnel

But a shadow looming over this good news is a recent decision by federal transportation officials to deny funding for a proposed improvement that would expand the Howard Street Tunnel that provides vital rail cargo access for the port. Although functional, the tunnel is obsolete as it is unable to accommodate freight trains that transport cargo containers stacked two high, referred to as double-stack rail.

The ability to attract large new cargo container ships to the Port of Baltimore in the long-term hinges, in part, on ensuring the double-stack rail issue is addressed in the very near future.

A recent Maryland Port Commission analysis of competing ports noted that the Port of Baltimore has a lot going for it. Indeed the port is “big ship ready now,” the analysis says. A number of years ago, the state entered into a public-private partnership with Ports America Chesapeake to develop a 50-foot berth at Seagirt Marine Terminal, and millions are spent keeping the Chesapeake Bay channel dredged and otherwise maintained for the big ships.

But a major artery from the port — the Howard Street Tunnel – hasn’t gotten the attention it badly needs for modern rail cargo operations.

The state applied for $155 million in federal funds under a new program called FASTLANE to help with expanding and improving the tunnel. But, to the surprise of many, the project wasn’t given the green light this year.

The recent decision by federal officials not to partner in the funding of the proposed tunnel project was deeply disappointing. It is a transportation infrastructure project that has been neglected for years and has a direct impact on the national economy. The project seemed ripe for FASTLANE funding.

All is not lost, though, as Maryland can reapply next year for FASTLANE funding for the tunnel improvements.

A critical link

The 1.7 mile tunnel through the heart of downtown Baltimore is a critical direct link for rail cargo carriers to the port. Rail carriers, like CSX Corp., which owns the tunnel, are increasingly using double-stack rail as the preferred means of transporting goods and creating efficiencies in their businesses.

To ensure this project, which is estimated to cost $425 million, isn’t overlooked in future FASTLANE funding cycles, Maryland transportation officials along with state and local elected officials must remain resolute and begin collaborating to ensure a good strategy is in place to make an ironclad case for this overdue and critically needed project.

We need an “all hands on deck” approach for the next application cycle.

Maryland Department of Transportation officials plan to meet with FASTLANE program administrators in coming weeks to discuss strengths in this year’s application and areas that could be improved on in next year’s application. That’s a good first step.

Hopefully, the information gathered can help further solidify the case that investment in the Howard Street Tunnel project will pay big economic dividends for the port, the Baltimore region, the state — and also the nation.

Competition for the $800 million available in FASTLANE funding this year – the first time program funds were available – was intense. A total of 212 applications were filed seeking an astounding $9.8 billion of funding requests.

Another way to look at that: $9 billion in requests nationwide, including Maryland’s, did not make the cut for the program’s first cycle of funding.

Unified political front

With this many projects left on the “cutting room” floor, it is highly likely that the competition will remain stiff next year. The high number of applications signals widespread need for major transportation project dollars nationwide and highlights the federal government’s failure to invest in our nation’s infrastructure over the last three decades.

Thankfully, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, state transportation and port officials, along with CSX officials, are committed to applying again for FASTLANE funding next year.

It will be incumbent on elected state and local leaders to get to work quickly to ensure they present not only a strong economic case for the tunnel project but also demonstrate a unified political front that makes it clear this is a top transportation priority for the state and City of Baltimore.

It’s not a stretch to say that the state’s ability to maximize its current investment and competitive advantage at the Port of Baltimore may depend on the successful funding of this project.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record. To purchase a reprint of this column, contact The Daily Record.