The long-awaited Howard Street Tunnel expansion, which will allow for double-stacked rail travel to and from the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore, broke ground Monday afternoon after years of delays and setbacks.
“This is an absolute game changer, not just for Maryland, for the entire region,” said Gov. Larry Hogan, standing on the tracks at the historic Mount Royal Station, located on what is now the Maryland Institute College of Art campus. “Expanding the 126-year-old Howard Street Tunnel to allow for double-stacked container trains will clear a decades-long hurdle for the Port of Baltimore and break a major East Coast rail bottleneck.”
Hogan was joined at the ceremonial groundbreaking by Jim Foote, the CEO of CSX, the company that owns the tunnel; Federal Railroad Administration Deputy Administrator Amit Bose; Maryland Department of Transit Secretary Greg Slater; and MDOT Maryland Port Administration Executive Director William Doyle.
Hogan, Foote and Bose also signed a memorandum of understanding between the state, the FRA and CSX, outlining the public-private partnership that will oversee the project.
A number of politicians also appeared in support of the project, including U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, who has advocated for the expansion project as it has developed over the past seven years.
“We survived two administrations of CSX (leadership), two administrations in Washington, we had only one administration in Annapolis, and we got it done, because we stayed focused on getting this tunnel finished,” Cardin said. “Why? Because we recognize the future of this port.”
The project is expected to be a major boon for the Port of Baltimore, which has sought to take advantage of its location and ability to accommodate some of the world’s largest shipping vessels.
In total, the expansion aims to increase the port’s business by 160,000 containers annually. It also would create 14,000 jobs, including both construction and permanent jobs, reduce emissions and clear up congestion on Interstate 95 by reducing the need for trucks to carry cargo.
The actual construction of the project has already begun with drainage work inside the tunnel, according to Port of Baltimore spokesman Richard Scher. Overall, the expansion, which includes not only the Howard Street Tunnel but also 21 other points that obstruct travel for double-stack strains along the Interstate 95 rail corridor, is planned to be completed in 2025.
Baltimore has long suffered from the 126-year-old tunnel’s outdated infrastructure; the 1.7-mile tunnel is not tall enough to accommodate trains carrying two shipping containers stacked on top of each other, which is the industry standard for moving cargo. There was a time when officials believed the project would cost several billion dollars, but improvements to construction technology have lowered that price tag significantly. The project is now expected to cost $466 million.
Even so, efforts to expand the tunnel have been stunted in the past due to lack of funds and trouble with negotiations; in 2016, the federal government denied the state’s request for $160 million to go towards the project. Then, in 2017, CSX pulled its portion of the funding from the project, leading the state to retract another request for funding from the federal government. The company returned to the project in December the following year.
Now, the project is finally a go, with funds coming in from the state, the federal government and CSX. Scher said Maryland will contribute $202.5 million and CSX will contribute $113 million, while $125 million will come from a federal Infrastructure For Rebuilding America grant, which the state was awarded in 2019, and $3 million from federal highway funding. Pennsylvania, where some of the points of obstruction the project will address are located, is contributing $22 million.
The groundbreaking also follows an environmental impact study, completed in March and April of 2021, which showed that the project will have no significant environmental impact.
The immediate next step in the expansion will be for CSX to hire contractors to complete the project.
“This project is great for the state of Maryland, this project is great for the city of Baltimore,” said Foote, CSX’s CEO. “And this project is great for CSX’s customers, providing them with a new, modernized infrastructure.”