BALTIMORE (WJZ) — The Howard Street Tunnel is one step closer to an overhaul more than two decades after a frightening derailment and fire.

The project has major implications for the Port of Baltimore, already one of the busiest in the country. An expanded tunnel would be able to increase the number of containers the port brings in by at least 25% annually.

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Trains leave the port at only half the height other ports allow.

“Most of your major ports, Virginia, New York — our competitors — they all can double stack,” William Doyle, the Maryland Port Administration’s executive director, said.

Double stacking — two containers stacked on top of each other on a train — is not possible out of Baltimore because of height restrictions along the route.

“Double stacking can not go north or south because of Baltimore or Philadelphia,” Doyle said.

A project designed to change that would lower the track along the route in three states, allowing for more cargo.

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“We’ll have bridges raised, bridges reconstructed from here all the way to Philadelphia,” Doyle said.

An environmental assessment out Monday points to increased emissions and fuel usage if the project does not move forward since much of what comes into the port winds up on the roads instead of on the rails.

“We’re all in this to do the least about of impact on the environment and the structures that exist today,” Doyle said.

A large piece of the project involves the Howard Street Tunnel. The more than 1.5-mile, single-track tunnel was built in the 1890s and runs from Camden Yards through the heart of Baltimore to its end near Mount Royal Station.

The tunnel’s current clearance is a foot and a half too short for double-stack trains.

In 2001, an 11-car derailment sparked a fuel and chemical fire inside the tunnel that lasted for hours.

Officials hope to select a build option and break ground by summer.

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Public comment on the project is open through the end of the month. To view the full assessment and to submit comments, click here.

Paul Gessler