The average person may not think twice about Baltimore’s Howard Street Tunnel. The approximately 120-year old tunnel is one of the longest tunnels within the B&O Railroad system, and is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Yet, its importance is more than a historical site. The tunnel’s outdated infrastructure is a major constraint to expanding cargo traffic and its future remains uncertain.
The Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore is one of the nation’s fastest growing ports and with its ability to handle the super Panamax ships since the widening of the Panama Canal two years ago, the port continues to set records. The landscape of the shipping industry is quickly evolving, and many experts believe that in order to surpass the competition, rail for cargo needs to evolve.
“Because rail is seen as a less expensive alternative to trucking, shippers look to rail to carry large amounts of cargo quickly. Due to the large cargo volumes entering the United States via the mega-ships, rail infrastructure must be able to operate efficiently, keeping profitability numbers high,” says a Port, Airport and Global Infrastructure Report compiled by JLL, a professional services firm that specializes in real estate and investment management.
Currently, the Howard Street Tunnel cannot handle double-stacked containers. This causes goods to be delivered via truck which can add a day or more before consumers receive them.
In September 2016, CSX, the owner of the tunnel, and state officials announced plans to expand the tunnel in order to allow double-stacked trains to pass through. The plan was projected to cost $425 million. The state and CSX would contribute $270 million and sought the remaining $155 million from the federal government.
In addition to alleviating the bottleneck, the expansion project was expected to create 500 construction jobs and once completed, 3,200 jobs statewide. But in November 2017, CSX officials withdrew support of the project citing a new operating plan.
“The State of Maryland has positioned the Port of Baltimore perfectly to be a major player in the competitive business of shipping cargo,” said Don Fry, President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. “Forward-looking plans have ensured the port can be accessed by the largest cargo ships in the world now coming through an expanded Panama Canal, and this has put the Port of Baltimore at the very forefront of transporting goods in the global economy.”
“The only remaining piece of the puzzle to maximize the port’s economic impact is the expansion of the Howard Street Tunnel for double-stack rail,” Fry said. “This project is of the highest priority to guarantee the port remains an economic powerhouse for the region and the state well into the future.”
Congressman Elijah Cummings also expressed concern about the tabling of the project.
“The members of the Maryland Congressional Delegation spent years working to align support for the Howard Street Tunnel double-stack project, which would improve safety, speed the flow of commerce and support the continued growth of the Port of Baltimore,” Cummings said in a statement. “We were shocked when CSX simply walked away from this effort – with practically no notice to us even though we had worked so closely for so long. However, I have personally asked CSX’s executives to review their hasty decision and CSX indicated that they would do so. I look forward to receiving the results of that review.”
CSX has gone through a number of recent leadership changes – Hunter Harrison, President and CEO, unexpectedly passed away in December – and James Foote, who was the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer was named President and CEO following Harrison’s death. In March 2018 Foote announced the company’s plans to build upon the foundation of the company’s scheduled railroading model, increase efficiency, control costs and grow the business.
New operational procedures and new leadership also appear to have reopened the door to expanding the Howard Street Tunnel.
“CSX is continuing discussions about the Howard Street Tunnel with the relevant Maryland stakeholders,” said Christopher Smith, a spokesman for CSX. “We appreciate the partnership we have developed with the state, city and port and we look forward to continuing the dialogue with them about our plans moving forward. Intermodal remains an important part of CSX’s business and we are committed to supporting the freight rail needs of our customers and the Port of Baltimore through frequent, reliable, on-dock rail service.”
This is good news to port officials, especially Bayard Hogans, General Manager of Ports Chesapeake America, who says the company is continuously looking for ways to get the Port of Baltimore to that number one spot.
“We’ve heard in recent months that CSX is taking another look at the Howard Street Tunnel project and that is very positive news. Double stacks are a key asset to the Port of Baltimore,” Hogans said.
As the port continues to set records in the amount of cargo arriving in Baltimore, officials continue to have a dialog with CSX and are hopeful that a positive resolution can be reached.
“The CSX and MDOT Maryland Port Administration continue to explore a path forward for double stacking the Howard Street Tunnel,” Jim White, Executive Director of the Maryland Port Administration, said. “We meet regularly and have identified the challenges that need to be overcome. This is a project that is critical to putting us on a more level playing field with our competitors and allowing us to continue aggressive growth in the container business.”