Amtrak still has many steps to complete before it can break ground on a new multibillion-dollar passenger rail tunnel that will speed train travel times in the Northeast Corridor and give a $100 million facelift to the West Baltimore MARC station.
One of those key steps — getting the property rights to start digging — was the topic of a meeting Tuesday between company officials and more than 50 West Baltimore residents.
The publicly subsidized passenger rail company is well on its way to acquiring rights to both public and private surface-level properties — including roadways, alleys, as well as residential and commercial buildings — that it will need to either demolish or otherwise use or occupy for construction. But subsurface acquisition has yet to begin, and more than 500 property owners will be receiving offer letters starting in January for the rights to bore through the bedrock 70 to 150 feet beneath their homes.
Gov. Wes Moore and other Maryland officials have welcomed Amtrak’s recent announcement of more than $4 billion in federal grants to fund construction of the new Frederick Douglass Tunnel. Earlier this year, the project even attracted a visit from President Joe Biden, a longtime Amtrak rider and vocal rail transit advocate, who highlighted the need to replace the Civil War-era B&P Tunnel, a notorious bottleneck slowing down Amtrak’s entire Northeast Corridor.
What are subsurface property rights?
Aiming a green laser pointer at a 3D cartoon graphic of the earth, Leah Gatlin, Amtrak’s director of real estate acquisition for the Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program, explained that land ownership entails more than just the house and yard on the surface.
“You own the ground subsurface down to the core of the earth,” Gatlin said. Amtrak doesn’t need to own all the land the future tunnel will run under, but it does need to acquire the rights to dig through it at a certain depth.
And that process will take some time, in part because appraisers have had a difficult time assessing the value of those property rights, said Gatlin. Unlike some other states, where residents might “strike gold” owning a home that rests on top of oil, gas or another commodified mineral, there’s essentially no demand — thus, no market — for subsurface property in Maryland, Gatlan said.
“It’s a lot to go through, and we’re not actually in the position to make 532 offers all at once,” Gatlin told the crowd.
Amtrak has organized such properties into four geographic groups and it hopes to have all offers to owners by the end of 2024. Their goal is to reach deals with all 532 property owners currently identified along the alignment within six months of issuing a first offer, and they’ll treat acquiring such rights through eminent domain as a last resort.
“We do not use eminent domain unnecessarily,” said Gatlin.
In August, Amtrak filed in the District Court of Maryland to acquire four residential properties in the 1000 block of North Payson St. through eminent domain. The company had already purchased the majority of the boarded-up block — which it plans to begin demolishing soon — but cited difficulties reaching a sales agreement with four of the owners.
‘How will this affect our homes?’
Most questions that community members had Tuesday night weren’t just about the subsurface real estate process. With a redlined past that brought infrastructure slights like the “Highway to Nowhere,” the distrust that many residents — particularly in West Baltimore — hold for megaprojects like the future tunnel reflects collective generational trauma.
“My house is over 100 years old, and I find it hard to believe that all this digging will be done and it will be safe to stay in our homes. Will we be asked to sell our properties, or what?” asked one resident of Sandtown-Winchester during Tuesday’s first Q&A session.
An Amtrak representative stressed that owners for all properties that the company needs to fully acquire have already been contacted, so no news meant she didn’t need to go anywhere.
Mark Milton, senior director for the Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program, then tried to assuage the construction concern. Asked whether homes would be safe during construction, he emphatically answered, “Yes.”
Barbara Bourland, a Reservoir Hill resident, followed up by inquiring about engineering analyses that Amtrak has conducted and whether they will help homeowners deal with potential structural issues.
Contractors will conduct preconstruction surveys of all properties that fall in the impact zone, Milton explained. “If for any reason through those analyses … if there’s concern that there’s going to be damage [to a property], then yes, we are not just open to, but required to, provide additional shoring up of the property,” he said.
Amtrak has repeatedly tried to assure residents that tunnel boring will not damage the foundations of their homes, but some, like Bourland, are not convinced. She and several of her Reservoir Hill neighbors walked the tunnel alignment in their neighborhood and in Penn North recently to knock on doors and share information about the project. She told The Baltimore Banner that the majority of residents with whom they spoke were unaware that the project was happening.
Bourland pointed to an impact map included with the tunnel’s environmental impact study to demonstrate the potential effects on the area’s homes during train operations. According to that map, just nine Reservoir Hill homes are listed in a “potential ground-borne noise impact site for further assessment.”
To the southwest, roughly 200 land parcels in Sandtown-Winchester have that same designation. And in Midtown-Edmondson, the neighborhood that will host the tunnel’s southern portal, dozens of parcels face moderate to severe noise impacts. And it’s the only neighborhood where businesses and community spaces, like churches, face displacement.
Amtrak has offered relocation benefits to displaced homeowners and businesses, and representatives said Tuesday night that most recipients of such benefits have walked away satisfied. They later clarified that the map indicates noise impacts prior to any mitigation measures. Amtrak will construct noise walls to mitigate severe noise impacts in Midtown-Edmondson and Sandtown-Winchester as trains approach the tunnel, and is continuing to evaluate mitigation measures for properties that may experience ground-borne noise impact.
Milton emphasized that the tunnel will sit on average more than 100 feet — the height of a 10-story building — underground. According to the project’s record of decision, the average depth of the tunnel is 115 feet across the alignment — roughly 150 feet at its deepest point. At that depth, operational vibration would be minimal to nonexistent at the earth’s surface, Milton said.
Attendees rehashed a slew of other concerns about the tunnel program, from the potential that freight trains would one day pass through the tunnel to the placement of ventilation facilities. Some West Baltimoreans, particularly residents in Reservoir Hill, believe Amtrak has not adequately addressed their concerns and has provided conflicting information.
Amtrak had previously scheduled an additional community meeting in Reservoir Hill for Nov. 16 to discuss many of these concerns. They deferred many such questions to that meeting, citing the desire to have the correct subject-area experts field the inquiries.
“We are also open to anyone who has a question. We are going to any meeting, any community meeting to answer it,” said an Amtrak representative to the crowd.
Amtrak urges residents with questions about the tunnel project to email email@example.com or call 443-423-1115 and ask to speak to a member of the project team. Residents with real estate questions/concerns can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.