April 18, 2016

Howard St. rail tunnel: Engineering beats politics

A recurring theme in this city's transportation history is that politics loudly dominates the discussion, while engineering quietly gets things done. The new plan to enlarge the freight rail tunnel under Howard Street is a perfect example of this.

Engineers have apparently now come up with an efficient and sensible new tunnel modification plan that actually works to end Baltimore's crippling freight bottleneck, instead of merely supporting what the planners and politicians had been promoting.

Previously, engineers said the existing tunnel could not be enlarged. Fortunately, the new study did not accept "no" for an answer. Engineers have now concluded that the existing Howard Street tunnel can indeed be enlarged.

North portal of the Howard Street rail tunnel from the former Mount Royal Station near Dolphin Street -
now part of the Maryland Institute College of Art

The tunnel has been obsolete for decades - too small for double-stack freight containers and deemed unsafe for hazardous cargo. Politicians and planners had devised various multi-billion dollar plans to build completely new rail tunnels miles away to circumvent it, which have come to nothing. Everyone agrees this is a crucial issue to the entire economy of the city and multi-state region.

The initial engineering report lead by the Federal Railroad Administration was completed in 2005 (download here), and proposed completely new freight routes starting at well above a billion dollars (in 2003 dollars). The cost would have certainly escalated dramatically from there.

More recently in the past several years, they had taken to a cheaper "low tech" alternative of creating a truck terminal southwest of the city, where rail cars could be loaded with containers, whereby avoiding the Howard Street tunnel bottleneck.

Site after site was proposed for this truck-rail terminal, each one killed in turn by community opposition. Each proposed site was worse than the previous one, both for their transportation system inefficiencies and their impacts. The earlier suburban sites were allowed to go through the formal environmental review process prior to being killed, while the subsequent city site in Morrell Park had a very weak pretense of actually being viable in the first place

Projects die of their own weight

That's the way political stalemates for major projects usually work, from the proposed city expressway system first planned in the 1950s and 1960s, to the recently deceased light rail Red Line. Various decisions from various political committees and task forces tend to be piled on top of each other like a house of cards, making the plans increasingly ineffective, inefficient and infeasible.

Plans are seldom actually killed by anyone in particular. They just die under their own increasing weight. Somebody is usually credited with the execution, like Senator Mikulski for the expressway system, or Governor Hogan for the Red Line, or the Morrell Park community for the truck-rail terminal, but this is basically just expedient happenstance - someone in the right place at the right time.

If any of these plans had been pronounced dead at a different moment in time, a different killer could have been declared. The Fells Point expressway could have been killed later by a local developer like Ed Hale, Lou Grasmick or John Paterakis. The Red Line could have died under the governorship of Anthony Brown, who would have had just as much trouble finding the money as Hogan, or previous Governor O'Malley for that matter. The truck-rail terminal could have been killed later by its putative operator, CSX Transportation, or earlier by the suburban Elkridge community which had previously rejected its site.

The 1990s MagLev train project is another example that could be cited, allegedly killed by the communities around BWI Airport - as if such a wide-ranging multi-billion project could be killed by mere NIMBYs. That's like surmising that the entire air age could have been killed by residents of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina who protested the Wright Brothers, or the space age could have been killed by the community in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Mere assumptions

The anatomy of these dead projects is such that someone makes a defining assumption that is then accepted as a "given" which eventually leads to its demise.

For the Howard Street freight rail tunnel, it had previously been concluded that the tunnel was too shallow beneath the ground to be enlarged to current standards - that it's structure couldn't support it. Until now, everyone treated that as a given, period. Now, that has been refuted.

The basic problem is that you cannot prove a negative. If engineers say that something can't be done, it simply means they haven't yet figured out how it CAN be done. It should not be an excuse to shut the door on further inquiry. Major projects are seldom if ever that simple.

Of course, sometimes the solution is worse than the problem. Tunneling is notorious for its hidden pitfalls, such as the "Big Bertha" fiasco in Seattle that has delayed the Alaskan Way project by several years and billions of dollars. Still, engineers are the ones who are now in the process of trying to fix their own mess.

With the Red Line, the problems started when what had previously been conceived as a west-side only project from the 1960s through the 1990s became an east-west line in the 2002 plan.

After that, engineering was essentially used a weapon rather than a tool. Politically motivated promoters and planners actually argued that a west-only line was not even feasible. They said the existing Metro tunnel could not be joined by a new tunnel (even though that was the original plan). They said light rail style vehicles could not be used in the Metro tunnel (even though all rail transit vehicles are built to custom specifications). They said the Red Line could not end at the Lexington Market Metro Station because a tail track was needed (even though BWI Airport's light rail terminus does not have a tail track). Then there were endless interpretations of various convoluted federal rules and regulations that allegedly ruled out this or that.

Another example: Various people who don't understand traffic engineering have offered various plans for taming the city's traffic - usually by making congestion worse with various two-way traffic schemes or supposed "traffic calming" measures. But what the city really needs is to get a competent traffic engineer who actually knows what he or she is doing to come in and fix the traffic signal timing. That would do far more to help than all these technology-averse schemes put together.

Don't ask traffic engineers to study only one option. Work with the traffic engineers to explore the entire range of options. Engineering is a tool, not a solution. And don't frame the issues in provocative politically-charged existential terms like "cars versus people".

The city's 1950s traffic engineer, Henry Barnes, is still being blamed for the city's current traffic problems. The needs of the 21st century are far different from the 1950s, so let's move on.

Transportation isn't even the best example of how technology should be used in a positive manner. The latest famous example in the computer world is how a government-sponsored hacker has cracked the Apple IPhone encryption to aid the battle against terrorists, circumventing endless negotiation between the "suits" on both sides of the issue.

There will never be an end to the things which people will say can't be done. These are contentions, not facts, and then they merely degenerate into defining assumptions.

There will always be more issues

Of course, the Howard Street freight tunnel enlargement project is not a done deal. For many activists, safety is the driving issue, not size. They point to the 2001 tunnel fire, contending that hazardous freight should not travel through the city on any route. Or they'll say that the tunnel enlargement will not do enough to retrofit safety into the tunnel.

There is an underlying lack of trust. The city and the CSX railroad have had protracted negotiations to try to overcome this. But such issues were demonstrated yet again last year when the retaining wall gave way between the Charles Village neighborhood and the railroad track, only a mile north of the Howard Street tunnel. That's a location where the track is fully accessible to deal with problems, but the neighborhood was still highly vulnerable. The repair and reconstruction took over a year, and this area will have to be reconstructed yet again for the new tunnel enlargement plan.

Another issue is how rail service would be maintained during the construction. CSX has done such rail traffic diversions in the past for a few days or weeks, but never for the five years this project is anticipated to take. This time period through 2023 could also be concurrent to that for building a new Amtrak tunnel nearby, which also handles some late night freight trains. Above the tunnel, Howard Street itself has been subjected to decades of abuse. Will this project create a major new construction zone headache on a street that has been in a general state of ruin since the light rail tracks were installed there in the early 1990s?

Some planners had even relished the idea that the Howard Street tunnel might no longer be used by freight trains, so it could then be reused for light rail (or in my case, MagLev). This project would kill those ideas.

In any event, finding a way to finally fix the Howard Street tunnel to accommodate modern freight trains is great news, and a triumph for engineers who are too often the whipping boys for those who actually make decisions and policies.

The role of engineering is to figure out how best to do things, not to make excuses for why things can't be done. Politicians always have the last word, but all of us need to be flexible and cognizant of what the engineers can do, and not just lay down assumptions to get in their way.

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