The Port of Baltimore has been touting its readiness to welcome the onslaught of giant container ships anticipated when the Panama Canal expansion is complete. The channels are dredged, the berth expanded and the brand new cranes are up and running. Already beating most East Coast ports in infrastructure, Baltimore seemed like it had finally beaten the geographic odds stacked against it because of its location 180 miles up the Chesapeake.
But then, last week, CSX pulled the plug on an intermodal yard that has been one of the centerpieces of the port’s container expansion program. That’s right, the city where the American railroad revolution began is being abandoned by the American railroad. It is ironic but Baltimore’s long devotion to rail has become its Achilles’ heel.
Here is the issue — between the waterfront and the main rail lines there is a century-old tunnel under the city. This tunnel doesn’t allow for shipping containers to be double stacked. So the plan was to use trucks to take containers from the port to a modern intermodal yard where trains could be double stacked before send off. But remember, the Baltimore area is chock-full of neighborhoods of people who don’t fancy having a daily dose of dray trucks careening around to get to this new facility. So one after another, proposed sites were abandoned due to community pressure. Finally, the city, the state DOT and CSX settled on a neighborhood in the southwestern part of the city, near the B&O Railroad museum. These neighbors also raised alarms and on the Thursday before the Labor Day weekend, the project died.
This news has been greeted with stunned incredulity by most port watchers who recall the CSX pledge to include Baltimore in its big National Gateway project linking the Midwest to East Coast ports. But it looks like the single stacked trains will continue to roll and Baltimore might not be sitting as pretty as we thought.