Tunnel repairs on track

U.S. Senate bill would fund upgrade for the Amtrak route under Baltimore

January 16, 2007|By Michael Dresser and Matthew Hay Brown | Michael Dresser and Matthew Hay Brown,SUN REPORTERS

WASHINGTON -- A transportation security bill introduced in the U.S. Senate this month would provide $43 million to upgrade and possibly replace the antiquated Amtrak tunnels that run under Baltimore, making the city one of the chief beneficiaries of the legislation.

The Surface Transportation and Rail Security Act of 2007, sponsored by a powerful member of the new Democratic Senate leadership and backed by many senior lawmakers, would authorize spending of $1.2 billion to improve security on the nation's intercity passenger, commuter and freight lines. It would also provide money for improved security for intercity buses, for trucks carrying hazardous materials and for pipelines.

Baltimore, Washington and New York are designated for specific projects because they are the only three cities where Amtrak is the owner of the tunnels that carry its trains.

Similar legislation has passed the Senate in recent years only to die in what was then a Republican-controlled House. But with the Democratic takeover in Congress after November's election, the bill could receive a warmer reception.

In the Senate, the measure's chances are aided by the clout of its chief sponsor, Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, chairman of the Commerce Committee. It also has the support of the panel's senior Republican and many top Democrats.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said he expects Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, to sponsor similar legislation in the House.

The Senate bill includes $40 million over four years to upgrade the Amtrak tunnels on the old Baltimore & Potomac line running south from Baltimore's Penn Station and the Union Tunnels north of the station. The tunnels, which are used by both Amtrak and MARC, are a gritty part of the underbelly of the city's industrial infrastructure.

The B&P tunnels, which according to Amtrak date to the 1870s, run under largely residential neighborhoods from the North Avenue Bridge to the 900 block of Pulaski St. on the west side. The twin Union Tunnels, one built in the 1870s and the other in the 1930s, run for about 16 blocks from Greenmount Avenue into East Baltimore. The condition of the tunnels limits the speeds at which trains can travel.

The upgrades would make it easier for passengers to get out of the tunnels during an emergency. The work also would make it easier for emergency personnel to get into them. Specific upgrades include expanding entrances and improving lighting and ventilation.

The legislation does not include funds for the Howard Street tunnels owned by CSX Transportation - the site of a fire and derailment in 2001 that tied up freight rail traffic all along the East Coast.

More significant for the long term, the bill includes an additional $3 million for preliminary design of a new tunnel or tunnels for Amtrak in Baltimore. Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said Amtrak's long-term goal is to build a new tunnel under Baltimore. But he said Amtrak welcomes the proposal to spend $40 million on upgrading the current tunnels.

"There are things that we can do in tunnels to upgrade surveillance, egress, ventilation, fire suppression and other things," he said.

Maryland State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen testified in a federal hearing last November in his role as chairman of the Interstate 95 Coalition that both Amtrak tunnel systems in the city need to be replaced. But he said that project could take 20 years to complete and that the current tunnels need work in the meantime.

"There's a lot of immediate attention that needs to be paid to them just from a preservation standpoint as well as the capacity constraints they provide," he said.

In addition to the Baltimore projects, the bill includes $32 million for Amtrak tunnels in Washington and $400 million for Amtrak tunnels in New York. The New York project is larger because the city has more and longer tunnels, several of which run under rivers.

Amtrak has been working on its tunnels in all three cities but has had to cannibalize its capital budget to fund operations. The bill would provide a dedicated source of funding for these projects and accelerate the work.

The legislation also includes $123.5 million over three years for security and safety improvements to Amtrak systemwide. Items that could be funded include closed-circuit television systems, a real-time train tracking system and access to the Transportation Security Administration passenger watch list.

The watch list initiative is part of an effort by Amtrak to move toward airline-style boarding passes so it can keep track of who is on the trains and when and where they get on and off, while preserving the ease of travel rail travelers expect.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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