Double stacking key to Port of Baltimore's future

Double Stacked Containers Through Baltimore – Light at the End of the Howard Street Tunnel

By James R. Jeffcoat

For years, the Port of Baltimore 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). 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.

The Howard Street Tunnel (HST) was built between 1890 and 1895 by the B&O Railroad to provide a direct rail route through Baltimore City, rather than going around the City. The north opening of the HST is near the Mount Royal Station and the south end is near Camden Yards stadium. It is approximately 1.7 miles long, 29 feet wide, and 21 feet high. The 21-foot height is 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% 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, 2016. Huge super 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 from the top of the rail of 20 feet, and adding in the height of the tracks and the rail car. The 21 foot height of the HST is insufficient by about a foot and a half.

For cargo unladed at the Port of Baltimore, there are only two routes west and south through the HST and north to Albany. This makes the capabilities of the HST 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 HST 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 HST where single-stacked 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 double-stacking capability through Baltimore City. In April 2016, CSX and Maryland announced plans to increase the height of the HST by 18 inches by lowering the tunnel is 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 HST project. In October 2016, the Hogan administration plans to again apply for federal funding for the expansion of the HST.

Renovating the HST 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 HST is the final step needed to restore Baltimore’s status as a world-class port.

This article was first published on the Op Ed page of the Baltimore Sun on September 12, 2016.