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The Dripby Gerald Neily10:27 amJul 18, 20110

Who but CSX thinks the Howard St. tunnel is safe?

Above: Twelve years ago, a fiery freight train fire under Howard St. burned for days and threatened serious damage to downtown Baltimore.

Recognizing the tenth anniversary of the harrowing Howard Street freight rail tunnel disaster, the mayor is attending a “Crisis Response Exercise” today. Yesterday, the Baltimore Sun concluded that “few changes” have been made during the decade since a train carrying hazardous cargo derailed and caught fire. Baltimore Brew noted the same thing over a year ago.

The only entity on record saying it doesn’t view the century-old tunnel as a problem is its owner, CSX. Deep in the Sun article comes this pronouncement by a CSX spokesman: “It is safe.”

CSX is clearly going in a different direction, focusing on the construction of a new intermodal terminal in Howard or Anne Arundel County that would shift much of the critical freight traffic linkage from rail to trucks, with less proximity to the port. Norfolk Southern has also abandoned a large 10-acre part of their intermodal terminal in East Baltimore’s Bayview in their own effort to minimize the Baltimore rail bottlenecks.

There has been much less reluctance to regulate routing of hazardous truck cargo than rails. The Fort McHenry and Harbor Tunnels have always been off-limits. The recommended alternate route is over the Key Bridge, but many of the hazardous trucks can instead be found on local city streets, far closer to the population.

Widespread calls to spend billions on new rail tunnels don’t seem to recognize that a disaster is a disaster, and no matter where it is, there would be victims. Charles Village residents can’t be very comfortable with the fact that the proposed billion dollar replacement for the Howard Street CSX tunnel would still empty out right outside their front door next to 26th Street. Others say to send the haz-mats through Ohio. How does that make Ohioans feel? The more routing restrictions there are, the longer the routes and exposures will be.

Meanwhile, for better or worse, transportation planners are focused on increasing capacities and reducing bottlenecks, and leaving safety to the safety experts.

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