Stack­ing the port’s deck

The Howard Street Tun­nel must be ren­o­vated to al­low dou­ble stack­ing of con­tain­ers

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By James R. Jef­f­coat James R. Jef­f­coat prac­tices mar­itime law at Gor­man & Wil­liams in Bal­ti­more. His email ad­dress is jj­ef­f­coat@gand­wlaw.com.

De­spite dredg­ing a 50-foot chan­nel and hav­ing a large pub­lic-pri­vate in­vest­ment in the Sea­girt Ma­rine Ter­mi­nal to pro­vide a 50-foot berth and su­per-sized Pana­max con­tainer cranes, more has to be done so the port of Bal­ti­more can com­pete with the top con­tainer ports in the world. For years, it has been at a ma­jor com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage due to the in­abil­ity to stack ship­ping con­tain­ers two-high on trains head­ing out of the city, a prac­tice known as “dou­ble-stack­ing.”

The Howard Street Tun­nel was built in the 1890s by the B&O Rail­road to pro­vide a di­rect rail route through Bal­ti­more City, rather than go­ing around it. The north open­ing of the tun­nel is near the Mount Royal Sta­tion (now ren­o­vated and in­cor­po­rated into the Mary­land In­sti­tute Col­lege of Art) and the south end is near Ori­ole Park at Cam­den Yards. It is ap­prox­i­mately 1.7 miles long, 29 feet wide and 21 feet high — too short for mod­ern cargo trans­porta­tion us­ing now-stan­dard dou­ble stacked con­tain­ers.

Be­gin­ning in the 1980s, rail­roads be­gan dou­ble stack­ing ship­ping con­tain­ers on rail cars to lower costs. Specially de­signed “well cars” al­low a con­tainer to be car­ried lower than on a nor­mal flat rail car. To­day, nearly 75 per­cent of in­ter­modal ship­ments use dou­ble stack­ing. The vol­ume of dou­ble-stacked ship­ments will dras­ti­cally in­crease as ship­ping com­pa­nies be­gin to take ad­van­tage of the newly widened Panama Canal. The first ship tran­sited the newly ex­panded canal on June 26. Huge Pana­max con­tainer ships, as wide as a 10-lane high­way, will now tran­sit the Panama Canal car­ry­ing Asian goods to At­lantic ports. Right now, only Bal­ti­more, Nor­folk and Mi­ami have chan­nels deep enough to ac­com­mo­date these ships. The first of these be­he­moth ves­sels, the Ever Lam­bent, called on Bal­ti­more this July.

Here’s the rub for Bal­ti­more. Dou­ble stack­ing of “high cube” con­tain­ers (each 9.5 feet high) in a well car re­quires a 20-foot clear­ance plus the height of the tracks and the rail car. The 21-foot height of the Howard Street Tun­nel is in­suf­fi­cient by about a foot and a half.

For cargo un­loaded at the Port of Bal­ti­more, there are only two routes west and south: through the Howard Street Tun­nel and north to Al­bany. This makes the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the tun­nel cru­cial to the Port of Bal­ti­more. Over the years there have been plans and at­tempts to ad­dress this is­sue, but none have come to fruition. For years it was thought that the tun­nel could not be raised or low­ered, and the price tag on a re­place­ment tun­nel was about $2 bil­lion. As a so­lu­tion, CSX in 2011 pro­posed build­ing a 70-acre trans­fer sta­tion within a rea­son­able dis­tance of the south end of the tun­nel where sin­glestacked rail cars would be dou­ble stacked with a se­cond con­tainer. This was a costly so­lu­tion for CSX and hardly ideal for the port of Bal­ti­more, and mere ru­mors about the trans­fer sta­tion drew com­mu­nity op­po­si­tion.

Ear­lier this year, Bal­ti­more ap­peared to be head­ing back on track to have dou­blestack­ing ca­pa­bil­ity through Bal­ti­more City. In April 2016, CSX and Mary­land an­nounced plans to in­crease the height of the tun­nel by 18 inches by low­er­ing it in some places and rais­ing the ceil­ing in others. The pro­posal called for CSX to pay $125 mil­lion, Mary­land to con­trib­ute $145 mil­lion, and both Mary­land and CSX to seek an ad­di­tional $155 mil­lion fed­eral fund­ing. The un­der­tak­ing was pro­jected to take four years to com­plete. Un­for­tu­nately, in July the fed­eral gov­ern­ment de­clined Mary­land’s ap­pli­ca­tion for the $155 mil­lion in fund­ing for the project. Next month, the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion plans to again ap­ply for fed­eral fund­ing for the ex­pan­sion of the tun­nel.

Ren­o­vat­ing the Howard Street Tun­nel is es­sen­tial if the Port of Bal­ti­more is to max­i­mize the cost ef­fi­cien­cies pro­vided by the ex­panded Panama Canal, su­per Pana­max cargo ships, a 50-foot chan­nel and su­per Pana­max cranes. As a deep-wa­ter port, with strong port in­fras­truc­ture, less con­ges­tion than New York and New Jer­sey, and an in­land lo­ca­tion closer to the Mid­west than Nor­folk or Mi­ami, the abil­ity to dou­ble stack con­tain­ers through the Howard Street Tun­nel is the fi­nal step needed to re­store Bal­ti­more’s sta­tus as a world-class port.

AMY DAVIS/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Bal­ti­more’s Howard Street Tun­nel is about a foot and a half too short to ac­com­mo­date dou­ble-stacked con­tain­ers.

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