Md. Asks Rail Network Aid

$360 Million Sought To Upgrade Bridges, City Tunnel, Bwi Station

August 25, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,

Maryland put in a bid Monday for $360 million in federal economic stimulus funds to upgrade the state's creaky passenger rail network, seeking money to replace an aging tunnel under downtown Baltimore, expand the BWI Marshall airport rail station and open up other bottlenecks in intercity and commuter train travel in the Northeast Corridor.

Most of the federal money the state has requested would go toward studying and engineering the eight projects on its wish list, which includes replacement of three bridges across the Bush, Gunpowder and Susquehanna rivers north of Baltimore, and separating passenger and freight trains from Perryville to Elkton.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who recently announced state bids for federal funding for light rail lines in the Baltimore and Washington areas, said in a statement that "one of my top priorities is creating a more balanced transportation network by investing in all forms of public transportation, from MARC and Amtrak service to the Red and the Purple lines."

The projects would improve capacity of the rail network to carry more passengers more quickly and more safely, said Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation. Amtrak trains crossing north of Baltimore now must slow as they cross the rivers, throttling back from 150 mph to 125 and 90 mph. Trains have to creep through the 1870s-era downtown tunnel at 30 mph, she said.

The final cost to complete the projects is much higher - the tunnel replacement is estimated around $1 billion, said Henson, while the bridges would cost $1.5 billion. But funding is needed to complete engineering and environmental studies before the projects are ready for construction.

The state's request must compete with bids from other states for a piece of the $8 billion earmarked by Congress for high-speed rail projects nationwide under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that though competition might be intense, that he thinks the state has a good chance of getting part of its wish list.

"We're going to have to see what other kinds of projects are submitted from other jurisdictions," Cummings said. "I have a feeling there are going to be a lot more proposals."

In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration is planning to invite more funding requests in the fall for the same pot of money, said Henson. Those bids, due in October, would be for even more ambitious rail corridor improvements, possibly including the nation's first maglev train. Henson said Maryland officials will be studying what projects they might propose.

Any bid for maglev funding faces a potential hurdle. A preliminary study of a maglev train between Washington and Baltimore halted after state lawmakers barred Maryland officials from studying, developing or building such a system in response to constituents' vocal fears about the safety and potential disruption of super-high-speed trains in their communities.

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional business group, said he thinks it's time for the Maryland legislature to reconsider its ban on maglev, or risk having the first line built somewhere else.

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