Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Intermodal Adjustment

Apparently the biggest rail choke point on the east coast is the Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore. When a train fire temporarily closed the tunnel back in 2001, some northbound trains from Baltimore’s port had to be routed through Cleveland and then Albany before reaching Philadelphia and New York City. According to this story by Ashley Halsey III in The Washington Post, “the tunnel’s too short for the taller modern freight trains. Like the throat of an hourglass, it chokes commerce along the East Coast and to Midwest markets.”

“Now, 21st-century economics are about the unleash a new challenge that the tunnel cannot handle.”

The tunnel has been deemed too expensive to fix, some estimates are as high as $3 billion. In other words, Baltimore needs a work around and that’s what the proposed intermodal terminal is all about.

“The choice location, from CSX’s point of view, is 15 miles from dockside and would cost between $140 million and $165 million to build. People in that community, Elkridge, have been outspoken against it, preferring a new school and preserving residential development.”

“From there the three other prospective sites get farther out and more expensive. Another is 19 miles away and estimated to cost $200 million to $225 million. A site near the state prison in Jessup is 24 miles from the port and would cost between $300 million and $325 million. The third is 34 miles out in Beltsville, and the price tag is estimated at $175 million to $200 million. CSX and the state have agreed to split the cost, up to $150 million, but who would pony up the balance of any amount above that has not been decided.”

What is at stake here is the survival of one of the greatest economic generators in the region, the Port of Baltimore. Right now, Baltimore and Norfolk are the only two deep water ports on the east coast capable of handling the new supersized container ships that will begin passing through the Panama Canal in 2014 but not for long. Ports in Savannah, Charleston amd New York are planning upgrades to compete for this international trade. Baltimores key advantage is being closer inland to critical Midwest markets than all of them.
I realize no one wants an intermodal terminal in their backyard but it has to go somewhere, and the sooner the better. There has to be a way to make this work.
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