Watch CBS News

Baltimore residents file civil rights complaint against Amtrak's Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program

Baltimore residents file civil rights complaint against Amtrak's Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program
Baltimore residents file civil rights complaint against Amtrak's Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program 02:55

BALTIMORE - A civil rights complaint was filed by a group of Reservoir Hill residents to the U.S. Department of Transportation that alleges Amtrak's proposed Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program will disproportionately impact Baltimore's Black and low-income community members. 

"To name a tunnel and a project like this after someone who actually fought for freedoms, truth and equality for all is really, really disappointing," Reservoir Hill Association President Keondra Prier said.

The project will modernize and transform a 10-mile section of the Northeast Corridor, which services Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

The 1.4-mile Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel connects Amtrak's Penn Station to MARC's West Baltimore Station, the oldest Amtrak-owned tunnel in operation along the Northeast Corridor at nearly 150-years-old, according to the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. 

The current tunnel runs through several neighborhoods including Sandtown-Winchester, Upton and Bolton Hill. 

Amtrak states the tunnel is impacted by a variety of age-related issues including excessive water infiltration, a deteriorating structure and a sinking floor.

The plan includes the construction of two new high-capacity tunnel tubes for electrified passenger trains, new roadway and railroad bridges, new rail systems, track and infrastructure, plus a new ADA-accessible West Baltimore MARC station, according to Amtrak, which will deliver a faster, more reliable trip.

On Tuesday, the Title VI complaint was filed on behalf of the Reservoir Hill Association, a nonprofit community organization that includes both residents and those who work in the neighborhood. 

"They [Amtrak] very well had the option and the means to achieve the goal of the project in a way that wasn't so discriminatory," Reservoir Hill Association BP Working Group Chair Carson Ward said.

The complaint calls on the U.S. Department of Transportation to open an investigation; ultimately to stop all construction in connection to the tunnel program and discuss the future of the project with those who are said to be adversely affected by the project.

"At the end of the day, the issue is that under the law, Amtrak is supposed to engage with the community in a way that you feel like your voice is heard, that all the decisions are very transparent and very clear, that the measures of why they decided to put something in your neighborhood and then to come up with a plan on how to make that beneficial to everyone. And if you ask anyone along the alignment, they'll tell you that none of those things have been accomplished," Prier said.

The plan, according to residents, would call for the construction of a two-mile tunnel that would run directly underneath the Reservoir Hill neighborhood. 

The 36-page complaint states the program will subject the community to noise pollution, solid waste and rodent problems. 

The document also states the impacts to Reservoir Hill include the demolition of homes, businesses and houses of worship, which alleges would cause harm to the historic neighborhood.

The Reservoir Hill Association notes other concerns to include the proposal for a ventilation facility that would be built across the street from Dorothy I. Height Elementary School.

"Across the street from an elementary school shows the level of disregard that Amtrak has come to our community with," Ward said.

"Baltimore City's kids have a higher rate with asthma than every single surrounding county and we just continue to bear the brunt of whatever's commercially is needed for the city in our neighborhood in order to protect the other neighborhoods and this is step one, two, three, four and five as far as I'm concerned: no vent facility across the street from the elementary school," neighbor and parent to two students at the school Darryl McClain said.

That statistic, confirmed by the Maryland Department of Health, also states more than 33 percent of high school students in Baltimore City have been told by a doctor or nurse that they have asthma compared to just under 26 percent statewide.

The tunnel ventilation systems are facilities that offer protection for train passengers during emergencies by providing stairs to the surface for evacuation as well as fans that could extract smoke from the tunnel in the event of a fire, according to Amtrak.

However, Amtrak states that the tunnel would service electric passenger trains and the fans will be tested from time-to-time to confirm working order but will not run under normal operations. 

Amtrak states emissions tied to the ventilation facility will not cause or substantially contribute to a violation of National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which was established by the U.S. EPA to protect the health and safety of people, including children.

Although Reservoir Hill residents are the latest to draw up concerns about the program, just last month, neighbors in Baltimore's Matthew Henson community communicated worries over the impacts of the construction of the tunnel.

Across the alignment, some community members have voiced frustrations with the engagement between residents and Amtrak officials.

"We're hearing about fear, confusion, chaos in the community," said Amy Petkovsek in April, the executive director of the Community Law Center, who represents six neighborhood associations impacted by ongoing construction.

$50 million will be spent to mitigate the adverse impacts of the program, according to Amtrak.

Funds will come from Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration and the State of Maryland.

The project is expected to allow MARC trains to go from downtown Baltimore to downtown Washington DC in just 30 minutes with trains able to travel more than 100 mph.

The tunnel that runs under some of Baltimore's residential neighborhoods has only one track, and trains need to slow down to just 30 mph to navigate a tight turn on the southern end, creating persistent delays — more than 10% of weekday trains are delayed, and delays happen on nearly all weekdays, the White House said in March.

Speed and capacity improvements as a result of replacing the tunnel would eliminate nearly seven hours of train delay for the average weekday and save rail customers nearly 450,000 hours annually, the White House said.

The majority of the funding for this project is supported by a Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, spearheaded by the Biden Administration.

The total price tag for the project, which includes related bridges and equipment modernization, could cost $6 billion.

The National Railroad Passenger Corporation states the Frederick Douglass Tunnel Program is anticipated to be completed in 2035 with major construction starting this year.

Amtrak will host two public meetings about the Frederick Douglass Tunnel program this month.

Community members will be able to hear an overview and receive an update about the project as well as have the opportunity to provide feedback on the exterior design features of the ventilation facilities. 

The first meeting is virtual on Monday, May 6 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

A second in-person meeting is set for Wednesday, May 8 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Mount Royal Elementary and Middle School: 121 McMechen Street. 

Amtrak chose not to comment on the complaint but did extend background information on the project. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.