December 2, 2016

New Amtrak tunnel can help freight and local agendas

The latest $4.52 billion cost estimate for the replacement Amtrak tunnel under West Baltimore demonstrates the high stakes in infrastructure investment. But if all that money can enable the project to be done right, then that's how it should be done. (Who's money? That's still to be addressed.)

This project essentially creates a starting point from which all agendas can be served: Not just for the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, but also the freight rail system, the MARC Commuter rail system, and the local communities such as around the West Baltimore MARC Station. Everyone can win.

One of the gaps in the existing 1873 Amtrak tunnel which shows just how close to the surface it is.
The proposed tunnel would be much deeper.

What's not included: Speed

But first for the record, this expensive new tunnel doesn't have anything to do with vaunted "high speed rail" ambitions for the Northeast Corridor between Washington and New York. The proposed 1.4 mile tunnel would only allow train speeds to increase from "creaky" to "slow". The whole issue of true high speed rail is not being addressed - whether from Magnetic Levitation or even conventional European/Japanese technology (which is rooted in the 20th rather than 21st century).

Speed is addictive, however, which is why Amtrak got pushed to the back burner in the first place, in favor of faster airplanes (remember the supersonic Concorde?) and even Interstate highways (think General Motors' Futurama).

So the proposed West Baltimore Amtrak tunnel merely allows us to catch up with the present, or maybe not even that far. The current tunnel is an 1873 model. Think of this project like an upgrade to a serviceable used car that just whets your appetite for that future Ferrari.

But a functioning 1973 Chevy Chevelle would still be very useful in getting us from Point "A" to Point "B". It will just allow Baltimore and the Northeast Corridor to "move forward, not backward", as our new Mayor Pugh would put it.

Amtrak's agenda: Averting disaster and promoting Penn Station development

Point One: The existing ancient tunnel is a disaster waiting to happen. Anything bad that happens down there could paralyze the Northeast Corridor for days, months or even years.

The existing tunnel cannot even be properly maintained. At the very least, a new tunnel is needed so that the existing tunnel can be closed to await long-needed renovations for whatever purpose it ends up with in the future. The new tunnel would have four tracks to serve both Amtrak and MARC.

Secondly, Amtrak has an important side-business in promoting development around its stations. Amtrak stresses its "downtown-to-downtown" service, but downtown is not what it used to be. Most of its stations are on the edge of things, and need to be pulled into the center. The epicenter of the Amtrak universe at New York's Penn Station is next to Hell's Kitchen, which is now being transformed by a multi-billion dollar development above the train yard. Similarly, Philadelphia's station is on the "wrong side" of the Susquehanna River, which Amtrak and others have been busy developing into the "right side".

Amtrak land around Baltimore's Penn Station has been contemplated for similar ambitious development for decades. After many false premature starts, it is now being led by Michael Beatty, the developer behind Harbor Point.

The proposed new tunnel immediately to the west is Amtrak's way of ensuring that this development can be marketed to people along the entire Northeast Corridor, and not be merely an alternative to Harbor Point (or Port Covington), which are being planned for relative isolation from the rail corridor. Amtrak feels a need to get part of the action.

MARC's commuter rail agenda: The West Baltimore Station

The southwest end of the Amtrak tunnel project will be the West Baltimore MARC Station, which is at the west end of the US 40 Franklin-Mulberry corridor. This station is totally substandard for handling passengers and needs to be relocated. It is on a curve, it cannot be upgraded for the disabled, and boarding occurs on the center tracks, which now requires crossing the outer tracks to get there.  

A new station needs to be built in concert with the new tunnel, the portal of which will be on the revised alignment just to the north. This new alignment will cause much disruption to the surrounding communities, which should be made into an opportunity to promote revitalization of these communities, as well as the adjacent "Highway to Nowhere" which has been a scar for West Baltimore for many decades.

The new West Baltimore MARC Station would also be on a brand new bridge over Franklin and Mulberry Streets, so there is no need to cram all the street traffic, pedestrians and the rail station patrons into the narrow scary underpasses adjacent to the two streets. If and when the Red Line is built, it would also not have to be crammed into these underpasses as well.

Beyond that, the relationship between regional Amtrak service and more localized MARC service needs to be redefined. The needs of the various rider markets need to be more focused. Right now, MARC serves very few riders with Baltimore as their destination, but in the future, there will be a need for service which has more of the the flexibility and efficiency of a conventional random on/off rapid transit line.

This not only applies to the Baltimore-Washington corridor, but up to Philadelphia as well. Right now, MARC comes within only a few miles of the comparable SEPTA commuter rail service around the Delaware border. This gap not only needs to be closed, but this arbitrary seam needs be eliminated. Why end MARC service at Perryville or Wilmington? If the MARC trains go that far, they should go all the way to Philadelphia. And if that happens, the distinction between the roles of commuter rail and Amtrak will need to be redefined.

The West Baltimore MARC Station, along with others such as Halethorpe and Odenton, will thus function more like Amtrak stations, which will strengthen the entire system and the communities they serve.

The freight agenda: The Howard Street CSX tunnel

The new Amtrak tunnel will also be more attractive for freight trains, which on face value is a good thing. But that's mainly just because the existing CSX freight line and tunnel under Howard Street is so bad, in terms of safety, disruption and lack of capacity.

All of the adjacent communities around the new and old Amtrak tunnels, as well as along the CSX freight lines, are concerned about this. But failing to improve the rail lines is no solution. Trains are not going to disappear.

Fortunately, a viable plan to enlarge and upgrade the Howard Street freight tunnel is now available after many years of hand-wringing. This is where the freight trains ought to be. The current situation where a few freight trains use the Amtrak line in the middle of the night is clearly a stopgap at best.

Groups such as in Reservoir Hill who have been fighting the new Amtrak tunnel would be better served by pushing for the Howard Street freight tunnel upgrade to be built as a prerequisite for the Amtrak project. This would allow the Amtrak tunnel to be strictly passengers-only while the CSX tunnel would be freight-only. That's a win-win for everybody.

In sum, Amtrak riders may be the smallest beneficiaries of the new tunnel. They will save a couple minutes at most traversing the current 1.4 mile distance. What's most important is to ensure that other agendas are best served as well: Building better communities around Penn Station and the West Baltimore MARC Station, upgrading and redefining the MARC system, and providing safe and efficient movement for both freight and passengers on the CSX and Amtrak lines.

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