Amtrak’s plans for a tunnel underneath West Baltimore would have a disparate impact on several majority-Black neighborhoods, violating civil rights law, a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation Tuesday claims.

Residents of West Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood allege that “Amtrak’s demonstrated need for the project does not justify the discriminatory effects on Black residents” and that “less discriminatory alternatives” were available for the two-mile, multibillion-dollar project. They’re represented by the Civil Rights and Racial Justice Clinic at the New York University School of Law.

Amtrak’s future tunnel, named after Maryland civil rights pioneer Frederick Douglass, would begin just north of the West Baltimore MARC station, running underneath the Midtown-Edmondson, Sandtown-Winchester, Penn North and Reservoir Hill neighborhoods and end just east of I-83, north of Baltimore’s Penn Station. Demolition connected to the construction, estimated to take more than a decade, began earlier this year.

The complaint represents concerned residents’ latest effort to bring the project, which has received billions of federal grant dollars and a sweeping endorsement from President Joe Biden, to a screeching halt.

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President Joe Biden has endorsed the Frederick Douglass Tunnel project. (Kaitlin Newman)

The new tunnel would replace the more-than-150-year-old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, a notorious bottleneck for Amtrak’s Northeast passenger train operation. The construction project, one of Amtrak’s largest and most ambitious to date, is considered a lynchpin for the federally subsidized company to decrease service delays and speed up its trains.

The existing tunnel travels underneath nearby neighborhoods including Sandtown-Winchester, Madison Park and Bolton Hill, a majority-white West Baltimore neighborhood.

Some residents have seen the new tunnel as a continuation of a pattern of harm inflicted on West Baltimore by big infrastructure projects, including the infamous Highway to Nowhere.

Amtrak’s 2017 Record of Decision says the selected tunnel route, “will have disproportionately high and adverse effects to Environmental Justice (EJ) populations,” the complaint points out. Midtown-Edmondson would face the most change, the record says, including property seizures, years of noise and truck traffic due to construction, and moving community spaces like playgrounds.

People hold a series of signs, including one that reads, 'TUNNEL CONSTRUCTION = NEIGHBORHOOD DESTRUCTION' in front of a brown school building.
Residents gathered outside a public meeting hosted by Amtrak on March 13, 2024 to show their opposition to the Frederick Douglass Tunnel project. (Daniel Zawodny)

The report goes on to list several ways to mitigate those impacts, including community beautification projects, initiatives to increase transportation access, and workforce development. Amtrak has plans for a $50 million community investment fund, which garnered both praise for investing in underserved neighborhoods and criticism for what some called a lack of transparency and concrete steps.

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Amtrak declined to comment on the complaint Wednesday afternoon.

Other options for the tunnel included rehabilitating the B&P Tunnel or building the new structure adjacent to the existing one, but they were ultimately rejected. The complaint filed yesterday alleges that, “the predominantly white Bolton Hill Community Association had the opportunity to provide input as to how certain alternative routes would adversely impact their neighborhood,” and that “Black community members did not have sufficient time to review information or share their thoughts on the project.”

A map of West Baltimore that demonstrates where Amtrak's future Frederick Douglass Tunnel will go.
Some construction for Amtrak’s planned Frederick Douglass Tunnel will has already begun. (Amtrak)

At community meetings, residents of Reservoir Hill and other neighborhoods told Amtrak they feared tunnel boring and construction would damage the foundations of their homes, litter their neighborhoods with construction debris and worsen air quality. One of its emergency ventilation facilities would be across the street from an elementary school, stoking concerns about higher rates of respiratory illness in the neighborhood.

People stand in front of a brown school building holding signs in protest; a woman speaking into a microphone holds one that reads, 'NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US."
Keondra Prier, president of the Reservoir Hill, speaks to demonstrators outside of a public meeting hosted by Amtrak on March 13, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny)

Amtrak has said there’s no risk of property damage associated with the planned construction and that the company will compensate homeowners in the unlikely case there is damage, as required by law. Amtrak also pointed out that the tunnel is for electrified passenger trains, not emissions-spewing diesel trains.

But that hasn’t been enough to satisfy some residents, who fear that the future tunnel will one day be used by freight trains carrying toxic chemicals.

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues.

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