In January, President Joe Biden joined Mayor Brandon Scott and Gov. Wes Moore in Baltimore to celebrate Amtrak’s plan for a West Baltimore tunnel upgrade, funded in part by the 2021 infrastructure bill.
“I’ve been through this tunnel a thousand times. When you talk about how badly the Baltimore tunnel needs an upgrade, you don’t need me to tell you that,” quipped Biden, a longtime, vocal train lover.
The project — estimated to cost as much as $6 billion — will replace the antiquated two-track Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, which was built in the Civil War era. Amtrak says the current 1.4-mile tunnel connecting Penn Station with MARC’s West Baltimore station is a notorious bottleneck for its entire northeast operation and causes daily passenger train delays.
The future tunnel, named for Maryland native Frederick Douglass, will allow trains to travel faster than the current 30 mph speed limit in the existing tunnel. Amtrak is currently implementing the first phase of construction — two tracks, each housed in a separate tube. Two additional tubes, which are yet to have a timeline, could be designed to accommodate freight trains, according to the passenger rail company.
Amtrak says the project will improve travel times, safety and reliability for the more than 9 million passengers who travel the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington each year.
But, while Amtrak and high-level officials celebrate, many of the residents of communities that will sit on top of the tunnel have plenty of concerns they think Amtrak isn’t taking seriously. And now, nearly a decade into planning for the tunnel, some residents don’t even know it’s coming to their backyard.
As the federal government-subsidized passenger rail company has bought up properties — including an old medical center and storefronts it will turn into an emergency exhaust vent — and is trying to acquire more through the use of eminent domain, Reservoir Hill residents worry how their historic neighborhood might change. With the Midtown-Edmondson community set to be the staging ground for years of loud, heavy truck runs, diesel-powered machinery and even a “muck bin,” neighbors worry about how construction will affect their health.
But is Amtrak listening?
Beth Toll, the senior public relations manager for Amtrak, stressed that the rail company is committed to working with neighborhood residents.
“At Amtrak, we do more than just provide rail transportation. We believe in being active participants in the communities we serve,” Toll wrote in an email to The Baltimore Banner.
The statement was accompanied by a list of dozens of community engagement sessions that Amtrak held throughout 2022 and 2023. Toll said the outreach started in 2021 with public information meetings held virtually due to the pandemic.
Planning for the tunnel began many years before that, with a federal Record of Decision officially moving the plan forward in 2017. The current B&P tunnel runs underneath the neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester, Madison Park and Bolton Hill. The tunnel will follow a path north of the existing one, connecting Penn Station with the West Baltimore MARC station. The tunnel will pass underneath multiple neighborhoods including Midtown-Edmondson and Reservoir Hill.
“The goal of Amtrak’s engagement effort is to reach the people who will be impacted by the construction of the Frederick Douglas Tunnel Program,” the rail company said in a statement. “The Amtrak outreach team strives to share information about the program with residents and business in the Program corridor so they will know the Program is coming, understand its purpose, know who to contact on the Program team to answer any questions and have an opportunity to benefit from investments being made as part of the program.”
Still, some residents aren’t satisfied with Amtrak’s outreach efforts.
“They are very good at checking the box,” said Laura Amlie, a Reservoir Hill resident and member of the advocacy group Residents Against the Tunnels. She and many other West Baltimore residents feel Amtrak’s community engagement has been more about checking off a box on a to-do list than soliciting feedback and community input.
“We are constantly surprised and outraged at how many people, including those directly affected by property seizure, construction, and operation have not been properly and completely informed,” Amlie wrote in an email.
There’s a sense of “this is happening, just accept it” among current and former property owners along North Payson Street, where Amtrak recently made headlines by moving to use eminent domain to acquire four properties in connection with the tunnel’s construction.
Amtrak has bought up nearly all the properties, some of which were vacant, along the 1000 block of North Payson Street. Just a stone’s throw from an abandoned supermarket and the neighborhood’s only playground, the block will soon be the hub of construction for the tunnel’s south entrance.
An owner of one of the properties Amtrak is seeking to acquire referred to Amtrak officials as “bullies.” He told The Banner that Amtrak — also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corp. — initially offered a price for the property well below market value. A previous owner of a property on the block that sold to Amtrak last year told The Banner the same thing, but said they were able to negotiate a better price.
Though Amtrak would not comment on the properties that it is seeking to acquire, citing pending litigation, officials said in an email that the potential use of eminent domain was communicated to all property owners as required by law. They added that they “worked to communicate this as sensitively as possible” and offered relocation assistance to any owners or tenants.
Some residents of the 900 block of North Payson Street mentioned a community meeting that Amtrak hosted this year at which they could ask questions about noise, pollution, property values and more. But that meeting, six years after the Record of Decision, happened only after community leaders repeatedly asked the passenger rail company to come talk to the community, they said.
Other West Baltimore residents, including Carson Ward of Reservoir Hill, said community meetings were few and far between, often at inconvenient locations or during the day while most people were working.
Darryl McClain, marketing chair for the Reservoir Hill Association, told The Banner that he and his neighbors have communicated concerns about the project to Amtrak — property seizures, air quality, tunnel-boring machines damaging the foundations of their historic homes. But he said they never get straight answers or are told to keep waiting for them.
“It has been a continuing problem that Amtrak has promised that they would address issues and then not addressed those issues,” McClain said.
One of the issues that caught Ward’s attention was an abandoned medical facility along North Avenue — she started investigating who owned the property after its neglected outdoor courtyard became a venue for drug activity.
“It was really impacting the community’s enjoyment of its spaces and properties, and it was a safety concern,” Ward said. “If they’re going to ignore something that’s on a smaller scale considering the bigger scope of the project … what bigger aspects of this project are they going to neglect down the line?”
When Ward discovered Amtrak recently had bought the facility and some adjacent properties, she started digging deeper and found out the company planned to turn the lot, which stands close to the tunnel’s future north entrance, into an emergency ventilation facility. A video she posted on TikTok raising concerns over pollutants and accusing Amtrak of environmental racism has gotten nearly 60,000 views.
As indicated in the Record of Decision, Amtrak’s fleet of trains in the Northeast Corridor is fully electrified, and they “do not directly generate emissions.” Asked if the company was committing to sending only 100% electrified trains through the tunnel, officials stopped short, saying they would do so “under normal operations.”
Maryland Transit Administration-operated MARC commuter trains, some of which were replaced with diesel-powered trains in 2018, will also be using the tunnel. In 2021, Amtrak announced that the Maryland Department of Transportation was committing to only running electrified MARC trains through the tunnel.
“Then what constitutes not-normal operations?” McClain asked.
Ward has the same question, adding that Amtrak hasn’t been clear regarding the potential frequency of diesel-powered trains running through the tunnel.
And what if there’s an electrical fire? The smoke would vent into the air, right across the street from an elementary school.
“This is the kind of thing that environmental justice laws were made for,” Amlie said.
Amtrak stressed on the project’s website that “diesel freight trains will only be allowed in the two new tunnel tubes under temporary or emergency operations.”
Meanwhile, the passenger rail company has stressed the urgent need to replace the current tunnel, which it says lacks modern safety systems. In July 2001, a freight train derailment in another old rail tunnel, the Howard Street Tunnel, sparked a chemical fire that lasted nearly a week, shutting down much of downtown.
The current B&P Tunnel “does not include any of the modern fire and life safety systems that help keep passengers safe in the event of emergencies, and extensive maintenance is required,” officials wrote on a website for the project. “These factors are evidence that now is the time to provide the 9 million MARC and Amtrak customers in this area with a modern tunnel that delivers a faster, more reliable trip.”
In a separate project, Amtrak is spending at least $90 million to redevelop and expand historic Penn Station, the Beaux-Arts-style structure built in 1911.
Baltimore City Councilman John T. Bullock, who represents District 9, gave Amtrak credit for at least holding meetings with concerned residents, but said community engagement “can’t be a done deal yet.” He said many West Baltimoreans distrust institutions like Amtrak because of historic harms committed in their communities.
“I’m certain there are still some concerns,” said Bullock, adding that it was worth looking at how Amtrak could promote a “more robust community conversation.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Scott said his office is aware of the concerns of some residents and is eager to hear from and work with them.
“Ensuring environmental justice concerns are addressed is a top priority of Mayor Scott’s Administration,” the mayor’s office said in a statement. “This project impacts a critical portion of Baltimore’s rail infrastructure. The Mayor’s Office will continue working closely with Amtrak as they pursue this badly needed modernization effort, which will add capacity and improve ADA compliance within Baltimore’s rail system. It is our hope the project will take the needs of all Baltimoreans into consideration.”
‘Amtrak doesn’t need to be the enemy here’
Given the electrified Amtrak fleet, Jonathan Sacks of the Edmondson Community Organization thinks the ventilation issue isn’t as dire as some residents fear. But what does he think Amtrak could do to inform the public about it and ease concerns?
Engage the community better, he said.
Sacks thinks the real environmental justice issues surrounding the tunnel project will be in his neighborhood of Midtown-Edmondson, a food desert community with just one playground and blocks full of boarded-up vacant houses. According to Sacks, 93% of the impact of construction over the next 10 years will occur there.
“We’re kind of scratching our heads, because Amtrak doesn’t need to be the enemy here,” he said.
With the West Baltimore MARC station set to get a facelift as part of the project and other investments on the table, Sacks sees tremendous opportunity for his neighborhood. He thinks Amtrak can be a big part of it.
As part of the 2017 Record of Decision that kick-started the project, Amtrak committed to investing $50 million in environmental justice mitigation measures — projects and initiatives that offset the environmental impact of construction on surrounding neighborhoods.
“Amtrak has an opportunity here in Midtown-Edmondson to see transformational, equitable revitalization in one of the most disinvested communities in the state,” Sacks said. He and his partner at ECO have plenty of ideas for how the money could be put to use in the neighborhood. The tough part? Getting Amtrak to listen to them.
“If they get serious about partnering with us, it could be a catalyst for us that, if you come back in five or 10 years, [Midtown-Edmondson] could look very different,” he said.
In an email, Amtrak officials said some of the mitigation efforts will be completed directly by the company as required. Other investments will go into community organizations that “serve West Baltimore communities within a quarter mile of tunnel alignment,” they added.
Areas of focus for the mitigation money include workforce development, community and neighborhood development, transportation programs and green spaces. Amtrak did not offer specific projects that it has in development or for which it has solicited community feedback.
And the quarter-mile range could become a sticking point. According to Sacks, his neighborhood is taking the brunt of the construction and is the most disinvested. But plenty of other people have ideas for that money, too. And it’s unclear to residents exactly which neighborhoods might qualify for a piece of the pie.
Ward takes issue with the amount of the mitigation fund, calling it “despicable” that such a small percentage of a roughly $6 billion project will go toward direct community investments. She also dismissed projects such as parks and green spaces, saying the mitigation money shouldn’t be spent on projects that city taxes should cover.
She said she’d like to see the company establish a trust that could pay residents who suffer property damage or health complications resulting from construction.
“Amtrak is not engaging with the community, so how are they going to know what is going to benefit the community?” Ward asked.
Bullock said it seemed unclear how Amtrak would spend the mitigation funds, but he credited the rail company with expressing an openness to hear the community’s ideas. Still, he’d like to see Amtrak do more.
Said Bullock: “They need to speak to and with communities as opposed to speaking at them.”
Amtrak urges residents with questions about the tunnel project to email email@example.com or call 410-618-0105 and ask to speak to a member of the project team.
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.