The cargo ship Limari is docked at a berth at the Port of Baltimore Seagirt… (Ricky Carioti/THE WASHINGTON…)
Nobody in 1895 would have thought that a difference of just two feet might one day influence more than 40,000 jobs in the 21st century.
The final spike in the transcontinental railroad had been hammered down just 26 years earlier, and with railroad companies in hot competition, a tunnel was built under the heart of Baltimore to serve one of them.
Now, 117 years later, 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.
“I’ve been around the port since 1947, and it’s been a problem since then and was a problem before then,” said Helen Delich Bentley, the Republican former congresswoman for whom the port is named. “They have really squeezed the Howard Street Tunnel so that, as it sits today, it can neither be raised nor lowered.”
The Howard Street Tunnel was an inadequate solution to a 19th-century problem. It became a serious impediment to 20th-century progress but seemed too expensive to fix. Now it demands a multimillion-dollar Band-Aid if the Port of Baltimore is to keep pace with the demands of the 21st-century global economy.
Without that quick fix, the city could suffer a devastating blow to one of the few vibrant engines that keep its economy afloat.
That engine is the Port of Baltimore, one of just two deep-water harbors on the East Coast that can handle massive new vessels — wide as a 10-lane freeway and almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall — that will spill into the Atlantic in little more than two years, once a project to widen the Panama Canal is complete.
Every port that can scrape together enough state and federal dollars is rushing to match what Baltimore already has. Savannah, Ga., wants to spend about $650 million to dredge its port. Charleston, S.C., is eager to dig a deeper channel, too, and New York hopes to find $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge by 65 feet so the big ships can squeeze under.
The docks of Baltimore — made famous by a season of shows in the HBO series “The Wire” — generate more than 40,000 jobs and $2.5 billion for the city and the region that surrounds it, the state says. The ability to move freight swiftly through Baltimore also affects what people pay at the cash register for all sorts of things in Maryland, Virginia and more than a dozen states beyond. Hauling products by rail or truck from faraway ports adds to their price tag. So do delays in getting goods to market.
Baltimore port jobs pay solid middle-class wages to 14,630 workers — stevedores, truckers, railroaders, steamship agents, freight forwarders, customhouse brokers, warehousemen, tugboat operators and Chesapeake Bay pilots.
An additional 10,940 jobs are generated by the $1 billion the port spends with office suppliers, equipment makers, security guards, cleaning and maintenance workers, and people who hold transportation jobs.
Add to that 14,470 trickle-down jobs that flow from the money spent by port-related workers when they go to the mall, buy a car, shop for groceries or pay for piano lessons.
The port’s economic lifeline leads through the Howard Street Tunnel, a single set of tracks that runs for almost 1.7 miles under the heart of the city. Trains going in opposite directions pause to take turns passing through.
“It’s old. It’s decrepit. It has safety problems. It has security problems,” said James L. Oberstar, a former congressman and chairman of the House Transportation Committee who pushed for funding to replace the tunnel. “This is a prime opportunity to do something really significant and beneficial, not just for Baltimore but for the whole country.”
In many respects, the tunnel is the nation’s infrastructure crisis in microcosm — a problem that has come home to roost after being ignored for decades. The rail network and the ports that feed them are as vital to the economy as the highways and bridges that most Americans envision when they hear the catchphrase “crumbling infrastructure.”
With scary, unaffordable price tags — like $1.7 trillion nationally by 2020 — infrastructure has not gotten much play in an election year. But the core issues in this presidential race — jobs, economic prosperity and shaping the future of the United States — are inextricably linked to that crumbling infrastructure.
And in them lies the parable of the Howard Street Tunnel.
When the tunnel, built with 30 million bricks, opened in the summer of 1895, it already was flanked by six- and eight-story buildings. The web of buildings, sewers, water lines, electrical cables and Internet optic fiber that now surround it have pushed the cost of replacing it to between $1 billion and $3 billion.