As a Maryland state official, Chad Williams knows how transformative a new Amtrak passenger rail tunnel can be for the Baltimore region and the nation.

As a Baltimorean, he knows that many of his neighbors oppose the tunnel getting built in the first place and feel Amtrak is railroading decisions through them.

Williams is trying to juggle those interests in his role as executive director of the West North Avenue Development Authority.

While many agree that the new Frederick Douglass Tunnel is critically needed, some local residents remain uneasy about the project. With support from leaders like Williams, they are pushing for more of a say in how the federally subsidized company intends to invest in communities above the tunnel during construction.

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“It’s definitely going to be a positive economic impact for all of Maryland and the Northeast Corridor in making sure we have high-speed rail to propel America’s economy forward,” said Williams, whose group was charged with leading the redevelopment and revitalization of a critical West Baltimore corridor by the Maryland General Assembly in 2021. “At the same time, though, the Maryland state legislature enacted us to make sure that development is happening efficiently and effectively along West North Avenue, and that it’s done in the right manner and it aligns with our comprehensive plan. And so we’re using that mandate to monitor this activity.”

A profile image of a man dressed in a suit and tie standing in front of a yellow banner that says "I love city life."
Chad Williams, executive director of the West North Avenue Development Authority, speaks with an attendee after sitting for a panel discussion on Jan. 24, 2024 at Live Baltimore's State of the City Market Update at Coppin State University. (Daniel Zawodny)

The project — estimated to cost billions of dollars — 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.

The Maryland Department of Transportation is contributing $450 million to the tunnel program, which is now fully funded thanks to a collection of federal grants.

Williams knows that the authority is walking a tightrope. And he wants to do a couple of things while he’s up there. First, WNADA wants Amtrak to entrust some of its community investment dollars with the authority.

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As part of the 2017 Record of Decision that kick-started the new tunnel, Amtrak committed to investing $50 million for environmental justice mitigation measures in communities within a quarter mile of the tunnel. The projects — focusing on workforce, transportation, green space, and community and neighborhood development — are intended to offset the negative environmental impact of construction.

Amtrak has said it wants to control the distribution of funds, Williams said, but the authority should be a key recipient that can then funnel money out to the community. If WNADA were not the sole recipient of funds, he said, it would open the door to other area community groups, such as like the Edmondson Community Organization, to apply for development initiatives of their own.

Williams and other state leaders also want to explore a recurring payment from Amtrak based on the company’s ridership and overall use of the future tunnel to make up for lost real estate that could have been reworked as a business or community space. He cited a future ventilation facility as an example — Amtrak purchased an abandoned medical center and a row of old storefronts along West North Avenue, which it plans to tear down to make room for the facility; it would serve as a relief valve in the event of a fire.

W. Kyle Anderson, a spokesperson for Amtrak, described the working relationship with the authority as positive and mutually beneficial. More information about the community investment dollars will be available later this year, he said in an email.

‘What are they sitting there for then?’

Advocating for community investment dollars isn’t the only bridge Williams is trying to lay down.

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In advance of a Jan. 11 public meeting, Williams and members of his staff recently met with residents of Reservoir Hill to review some of their ongoing concerns with the tunnel process. They plan to bring those questions to Amtrak and push for clearer answers.

He told The Baltimore Banner that the authority will help pay for a third-party engineering firm to review multiple studies conducted by Amtrak, including on the future tunnel’s environmental impact and vibration studies. A bid will be out soon, Williams said, and both the authority and the Reservoir Hill Association will select the engineer. The Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland Department of the Environment are offering assistance in crafting the language of the bid, he said.

“You have residents who feel, whether it’s true or not, but feel that because the Amtrak tunnel was already under Bolton Hill, why is it now being moved to under Reservoir Hill? So that brings up a history of potential bias, which makes this community kind of hesitant,” Williams said.

Keondra Prier, president of the Reservoir Hill Association, dug in on that potential bias up the road at Beth Am Synagogue later that night. Billed as a listening session, Amtrak representatives, engineers and other subject-area experts sat for a presentation from Reservoir Hill residents. Prier kicked things off with a review of redlining — systemic housing discrimination that prevented Black people from obtaining loans for purchasing a home — in the context of her historic, predominantly Black neighborhood.

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)

Prier and others question the future tunnel’s alignment, which would run underneath multiple West Baltimore neighborhoods but bypass Bolton Hill, a historically whiter, wealthier neighborhood that the current B&P Tunnel partially runs under.

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Amtrak studied multiple alternatives that would have dug the tunnel closer to the current B&P alignment. A 2014 report on all potential alignments suggested eliminating those options from consideration. Prier made it clear that she and other neighbors want to see that decision reversed.

Barbara Bourland, another Reservoir Hill neighbor, reiterated the fear that many in the neighborhood share of tunnel boring damaging the foundations of their historic homes. Amtrak employees have long tried to quell this fear, maintaining they are confident that private property won’t be damaged and stating that they are committed to reimbursing homeowners should that happen.

But Bourland said, “there’s no amount of money that’s worth it” should her home get damaged.

Mark Berry, an epidemiologist and 12-year Reservoir Hill resident, said he was concerned that Amtrak had not done more environmental impact studies since 2016 to account for accelerating climate change. Much of his testimony focused on the impacts of inhaling particulate matter and the fear of exacerbating Baltimore’s already disproportionate rates of pediatric asthma.

A group of people sitting in synagogue pews looking to the right paying attention to a presentation.
Amtrak and the Reservoir Hill Association hosted a listening session on Jan. 11, 2024 at Beth Am Synagogue where residents presented a number of concerns and questions for Amtrak’s Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program team. (Daniel Zawodny)

Yet still, Prier and others struck a tone of being willing to live with the future tunnel. They mostly want Amtrak to listen, take them seriously, and make sure their plan is resilient for the future — they asked rail officials to think about the year 2175, noting that the current B&P Tunnel has been operable for more than 150 years.

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“How confident are you that you’re planning 150 years of infrastructure?” Prier said.

In an email to The Banner, Amtrak’s Anderson said that the federally subsidized passenger rail company “has undertaken multiple engineering and planning analyses that have determined construction of the new tunnel is not expected to adversely impact private property.”

He said third-party engineering and consulting firms continue to review the tunnel design development process. Also, Amtrak will offer to inspect properties adjacent to the future tunnel immediately prior to construction to assess their physical condition.

That way, Anderson said, “if a property owner has a future concern that the construction damaged a property, Amtrak and the property owner will be able to examine the inspection report to help assess whether Amtrak’s construction activities unexpectedly caused damage to a property.”

Tunnel boring machines, which Amtrak estimates will begin digging underneath West Baltimore sometime in 2026, have been used to build metro systems all over the world, including under cities like Athens and Rome that sprawl in and around ancient ruins.

Still, many in the community feel that Amtrak isn’t actually listening to them. Some of Amtrak’s subject-area experts were in attendance at Beth Am listening to residents’ questions but weren’t given the opportunity to respond. Odessa Phillip, who runs the public relations company doing community outreach for the Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program, told the increasingly upset crowd that they wanted to “listen and listen with intention,” then be able to publish written responses to each of the questions at a later date.

Several people present asked when they could expect those responses. They were not given a specific date.

“What are they sitting there for then?” one woman asked, referring to several Amtrak employees present.

“We are engaged, we are educated, we talk to each other, we understand data,” said another meeting attendee. She said the continued lack of answers to repeated questions and concerns over the course of multiple public meetings felt like, “pats on the head, telling us, ‘Don’t worry, we are engineers.’”

All the while, Williams sat in the back of the synagogue, taking in the community’s questions and planning for his next conversations with Amtrak officials.

“Our agency and the community in Res Hill understand this tunnel is going to occur, and we just want to make sure Amtrak respects the architectural history and acknowledges the discrimination that has happened to that particular community in how they’ve been included in neighborhood decisions,” Williams said.

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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