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Howard Street Tunnel upgrades could take 6 years

A CSX trains comes out of the south end of the Howard Street Tunnel near the stadiums. (File photo)

A CSX trains comes out of the south end of the Howard Street Tunnel near the stadiums. (File photo)

A rail chokepoint in the city restraining the Port of Baltimore’s potential economic impact could be eliminated in the next decade if it receives federal funds.

During the Greater Baltimore Committee’s transportation summit on Wednesday, Bradley M. Smith, director of the Office of Freight and Multimodalism for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said needed improvements to the Howard Street Tunnel could be complete in six years. But that’s dependent on the project being selected for a federal FASTLANE grant.

“It’s really the last piece the Port of Baltimore needs to be a modern port,” Smith said.

The Howard Street Tunnel is a 1.7 mile tunnel that runs underneath downtown Baltimore, handles about 20 trains a day and was completed in 1895. It’s a major impediment to growth at the Port of Baltimore because of its height. The 19-foot-high tunnel prevents trains from moving shipping containers double-stack from the Seagrit Marine Terminal.

Moving double-stack containers via rail has become the preferred method for moving freight and allows trains to move a greater amount of cargo in one trip. The inability to move enough cargo by rail limits competitive advantages at the Port of Baltimore, such as being one of the few ports with a channel large enough to handle the so called Panamax ships moving through the expanded Panama Canal.

It was initially thought the project to modernize the Howard Street Tunnel could cost in the neighborhood of $2 billion and cause massive disruptions downtown for five years. But engineers identified methods to make the tunnel accessible for double-stack trains with minimal disruption to downtown and at a cost of about $425 million.

Last year the state applied for a $155 million FASTLANE grant from the federal government, but the project was not selected to receive funds. The state remains hopeful, Smith said, that the project will be selected for a grant this year because there will be $850 million in grants available in fiscal year 2017. That’s an increase from $800 million the year before when there were 212 applications with $9.8 billion in funding requested.

A solution for the city’s second major rail chokepoint has been identified, but a solution isn’t as close at hand.

The B&P Tunnel that runs through west Baltimore slows passenger rail travel, such as Amtrak, to a relative crawl. Curves in the tunnel, which dates to 1873, force trains that can travel up to 150 mph to pass through the city at 30 mph. Roughly 140 trains a day pass through the tunnel.

Amtrak has identified a preferred solution that requires a new tunnel to the north of the B&P that includes a much more gradual curve, allowing trains to travel faster through Baltimore.

But engineering and environmental studies are ongoing and a source of funding for the project has not been identified.

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