Amtrak will begin demolishing properties that it acquired along West North Avenue and North Payson Street in West Baltimore in mid-November as part of its work to build a new $6 billion passenger rail tunnel to serve the city.
Representatives of the private passenger rail company, which is subsidized by the federal government, shared the news at an open house-style meeting at Carver Vocational-Technical High School last month.
The demolition will clear space for the construction of two emergency ventilation facilities for the future tunnel. Phase 1 will bore two new tunnel tubes underneath a two-mile stretch of West Baltimore to replace the 150-year-old B&P Tunnel currently in use.
President Joe Biden, a longtime Amtrak supporter who regularly rode trains from Delaware to Washington, D.C., as a United States senator, touted the project during a visit to Baltimore in January. Standing with Gov. Wes Moore and local officials, Biden pointed to the current tunnel as a notorious bottleneck that causes major backups for Amtrak’s entire Northeast operation. The new tunnel aims to fix that, allowing trains to travel faster than current top speeds in the tunnel.
But many West Baltimore residents told The Baltimore Banner this past summer that they felt left in the dark about how construction would affect their communities. So on Sept. 26, Amtrak experts stood alongside more than a dozen printed information panels and fielded questions from residents about all aspects of the new tunnel program.
Four rowhomes on the northern end of the 1000 block of North Payson Street in Midtown-Edmondson will come down next month in preparation for the construction of the tunnel’s southernmost ventilation facility. Amtrak has negotiated the purchase of the majority of the properties along the block and is currently seeking to acquire the remaining four holdouts through eminent domain.
A member of Amtrak’s property acquisition team declined to comment on the status of the pending eminent domain suit at last week’s meeting. A company spokesperson said that Amtrak will continue demolishing the rest of the block as property acquisitions come through.
Farther northeast, Amtrak will clear out the former Madison Park Medical Center and some adjacent, vacant storefronts in the 900 block of West North Avenue. The lots will house the tunnel’s northernmost ventilation facility.
“Amtrak is currently working with the selected demo contractors to finalize task orders and permits,” said a company spokesperson in an emailed statement. “Demo activities will be intermittent and will continue through 2025.”
Many residents of neighboring Reservoir Hill have expressed concern at both the choice of tunnel alignment and the placement of the north ventilation facility. Some worry that tunnel-boring machines could cause structural damage to the foundations of their historic homes. And, the future emergency ventilation facility is going up across the street from an elementary school.
Other homeowners raised the same concern about construction affecting their homes with Amtrak officials at the open house. An Amtrak employee who fielded one such concern told one property owner, “You’re not going to feel this.”
Amtrak is also in the process of acquiring subsurface real estate rights for more than 500 parcels of land within the tunnel alignment. Officials handed out information pamphlets about the subsurface acquisition to residents at the meeting, and will be required to make payments to owners of properties on the surface of the tunnel’s path.
The rail company has tried to assuage the ventilation concern as the facilities are not meant to vent exhaust under normal operations — Amtrak’s fleet of trains along the Northeast Corridor is fully electrified. The three facilities will release smoke and serve as access points for rescue crews in the event of an electrical fire inside the tunnel. So unless disaster strikes, emissions will be minimal to nonexistent.
But community activists and some area residents still don’t feel assured. Though the tunnel is designed for Amtrak’s electric passenger trains, the record of decision does state that “the Project has been designed to not preclude freight traffic through the Tunnel for its 100+ year lifespan.”
Amtrak said that substantial use of the new tunnel by freight trains is “unlikely,” citing factors such as scheduling — a longer, slower freight train moving through the tunnel could cause a backup for high-speed Acela passenger trains that hope to zip through it.
The company informed residents of Midtown-Edmondson, the neighborhood that will house the new tunnel’s southern portal, that salvaged materials taken from properties slated for demolition will be made available to them for free.
Amtrak said it was in the process of determining exactly what proof residents will need to show to demonstrate they live or work in the area. A local organization that will facilitate the salvage process is currently in the onboarding process, and it will be in charge of determining the timeline for making materials available to residents.
The program agreement for the new tunnel also establishes a historic preservation grant fund worth $2.75 million. Though the particulars for accessing the fund have yet to be established, owners of historic properties in West Baltimore will be able to tap it for things like restoration.
That fund makes up part of a larger $50 million community investment program written into the project’s record of decision. Panels offering details about the community investments were the most popular for attendees, who spent much of their time at the meeting examining the printouts and asking questions to Deborah Rochkind, associate general counsel for Amtrak.
“We are committed to leaving this community in a better place,” said Rochkind, highlighting that $50 million is much more than Amtrak is legally required to invest in the community for environmental mitigation.
The mitigation consists of two parallel avenues: direct investments, meaning projects funded and built by Amtrak, and grants to area nonprofit organizations or government agencies.
Mitigation initiatives must fall within a quarter-mile radius of the tunnel route and fit within one or more of five categories: workforce development, parks and green spaces, transportation projects, community development and neighborhood development.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.