Amtrak has taken a major step toward building a planned West Baltimore tunnel, the federally subsidized passenger rail company announced Tuesday.

Kiewit/J.F. Shea Joint Venture, a construction supergroup made up of two separate companies, was awarded a $1 billion-plus contract to bore two new tunnel tubes underneath West Baltimore as part of a more than 10-year effort to upgrade passenger rail service in the region.

The future Frederick Douglass Tunnel, named after the famed Maryland writer and abolitionist, will replace the 151-year-old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel that Amtrak’s passenger trains currently use. Amtrak officials have long pointed to the tunnel as a major bottleneck in service along the Northeast Corridor.

With up to $4.7 billion worth of federal grants, the new tunnel will be the single biggest construction effort that Amtrak is leading to date. It’s one of multiple rail upgrades coming to Maryland with funding from the 2021 infrastructure bill championed by President Joe Biden, a longtime Amtrak passenger prior to his election.

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“The new Frederick Douglass Tunnel will generate fresh opportunities for Marylanders and help secure our transportation future,” Gov. Wes Moore said in a Tuesday press release. “This project marks an important step forward in our work to build strong pathways to work, wages, and wealth for all — while investing in critical infrastructure throughout the state.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott called the tunnel a “gamechanger for our city and the entire region,” adding that he was encouraged by Amtrak’s “intentional approach and emphasis on community engagement.”

The tunnel has been a subject of debate and discontent for some West Baltimore residents, who have spoken out in contentious meetings with Amtrak over concerns they say continue to go unaddressed. Some community groups have stepped in to try and bring both sides together.

Phase one of the tunnel program, slated for completion in 2035, includes three major construction contracts:

  • Replacing five roadway and rail bridges, the buildout of a renovated West Baltimore MARC station, and new rail infrastructure such as track interlockings, catenary/power and more.
  • Boring two tunnel tubes, both nearly 2 miles in length, underneath the neighborhoods of Midtown-Edmondson, Sandtown-Winchester, Penn North, Reservoir Hill and more.
  • Fitting out the new tunnel tubes with track and rail systems, and building three emergency ventilation facilities across the length of the tunnel.
A map of West Baltimore that demonstrates where Amtrak's future Frederick Douglass Tunnel will go.
Amtrak's future Frederick Douglass Tunnel will replace the Civil War-era Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel. The federally subsidized passenger rail company expects to begin tunnel boring in 2026 but has already begun construction activities associated with the tunnel program. (Amtrak)

The contract announced Tuesday covers the second item on that list.

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In business since 1884, Omaha, Nebraska-based Kiewit Construction was ranked third on the Engineering News-Record’s 2022 list of the top 400 U.S. contractors. Their recent portfolio includes assisting in expanding a subway line in Toronto, Canada.

California-based J.F. Shea Construction, in operation since 1881, boasts participation in construction of both the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. Their recent portfolio contains multiple U.S. rail tunnels, including an extension of New York City’s No. 7 metro line that opened in 2015.

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.