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.