The Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel is 1.4 miles long, running through a busy and important section of the Northeast Corridor railroad line.

(Photo by by MDGovpics / Flickr)

How Baltimore Engaged Disenfranchised Communities in Its Transportation Planning

The Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel replacement project would run through a Black community that had already been divided by a highway. Here’s how the city carried out an effective public engagement process.

Story by Veronica P. McBeth

Published on

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This following excerpt is from “Roadways for People: Rethinking Transportation Planning and Engineering” by Lynn Peterson and Elizabeth Doerr, published by Island Press. In it, transportation planner Veronica P. McBeth writes about the community engagement process she oversaw as part of the Baltimore & Potomac (B&P) Tunnel Replacement Project.

Authors’ note: This project is more typical of one that would land on a project lead’s desk in that it follows the standard National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Environmental Impact Study protocol (compared to the other example from New Orleans presented in the book). The project had been a priority for the state of Maryland and for Amtrak for many years, since the tunnel — which was and still is in use as a main route through the Northeast Corridor (NEC) railroad line — had reached the end of its useful life.

This project could have gone very differently if people on the project team such as McBeth, who oversaw the project from the Baltimore City side, and Odessa Phillip, president and CEO of Assedo Consulting, had not been leading the charge and advocates including council member Nick Mosby had not been so involved.

Here and in the book, McBeth provides background history and context about the community impacted by the project and how the project was carried out in an inclusive way.

The Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel is 1.4 miles long, running through a busy and important section of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) railroad line. According to Amtrak, the B&P tunnel is nearly 150 years old, dating back to the Civil War era. As such, with its age, the tunnel is well beyond the state of good repair needed for the MARC Penn Line commuter rail (MARC Penn Line) and the NEC. It’s in dire need of structural repairs, upgrades for fire and life safety systems, and several other improvements. Each day the tunnel stands as is, there is a risk of disaster; its safety is of enormous priority.

The NEC runs for 457 miles in the northeastern United States, connecting Washington, D.C, to Boston, and supports over 820,000 trips per day. The B&P Tunnel replacement program will allow for a four-mile section of the tunnel to be upgraded and transformed to help smooth and create safe passage along the NEC. This transformation — with the tunnel newly renamed the Frederick Douglass Tunnel — will include two new high-capacity tubes for passenger trains; new roadway, railroad bridges, rail systems and tracks; and an upgraded West Baltimore MARC station that will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While the safety needs are certainly indisputable, the major challenge is that a large segment of the new tunnel alignment goes through the neighborhood of Reservoir Hill. There will be significant impacts to the people who live there – most of whom are Black.

Book cover for Roadways for People

(Courtesy of Island Press)

According to a 2017 Baltimore City Health Department report, 85% of the over 10,500 residents of the Penn North/Reservoir Hill community are Black. Located in Northwest Baltimore just south of Druid Hill Park, bordering Interstate 83, Reservoir Hill sits right in the “Black Butterfly” area, which, as Morgan State University professor Lawrence Brown noted in the Baltimore Sun, reflects the racially based disparity in access to resources in the different swaths of the city.

Historically, the community was once part of an expansive and connected community known as Mount Royal. However, like many Black communities in the early to mid-20th century, Mount Royal fell victim to racist urban planning policies that, like so many instances, plowed through thriving historically Black, as well as Jewish, neighborhoods. In this case, the community was divided by the 1963 expansion of I-83 (called locally the Jones Falls Expressway), which went through Druid Hill Park and eliminated the north–south streets along that corridor. Not only were many residents displaced, but the community was also essentially cut off from the park, one of the city’s major expansive green spaces.

During this urban renewal era, the highway project, along with construction of large street thoroughfares around the park and the area, cut Reservoir Hill off from Bolton Hill, which is predominantly White and wealthier. Bolton Hill was protected during urban renewal, and it continues to see more investments in infrastructure projects even today.

As a predominantly Black community that was historically underserved and disinvested, the residents of Reservoir Hill already had a level of distrust and fear about a significant project like the B&P Tunnel happening in their community. So it was no surprise that there was pushback from the community once the announcement was made.

As the transit bureau chief for the Baltimore City Department of Transportation at the time, I managed the Baltimore City tasks associated with a multiparty National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study for the B&P Tunnel Project alongside the Federal Railroad Administration, the Maryland Department of Transportation and Amtrak. During this two-year NEPA study, I oversaw the city’s engagement to ensure that all federal regulations and guidelines were followed while also making sure the community’s voice was heard. The NEPA process included over two dozen small and large public engagement meetings (increased from the original plan for eight meetings), review of various alternatives and associated impacts, and assistance with materials included in the Environmental Impact Statement and the record of decision.

The initial preferred alignment of the tunnel would impact Reservoir Hill, and the community had concerns about the severity of the impacts. The community had worries about the existing and new tunnels going under homes, the removal of a large community garden in an existing food desert, the possibility of eminent domain, vent stacks in the neighborhoods, noise, air pollution, and, of course, the potential loss of community cohesiveness due to displacement of local residents.

There were several other proposed alternatives that had more severe impacts on the community before the preferred alignment was selected. The preferred alignment that was eventually submitted through the NEPA study was selected after considerable community engagement with people who lived in Reservoir Hill and their city council member, Nick Mosby, who is also a longtime resident of the neighborhood.

“My biggest role was serving as an interrupter to the first plan,” says Mosby, who met with the planning team members soon after the project was announced to the public. “My background was electrical engineering; that afforded the ability to review those initial plans in more depth and come up with thought-provoking questions and concerns.”

His major concerns in Reservoir Hill related to the cost-benefit analyses of the estimated seven-minute decrease of train travel times. While that might seem like a large win from an engineering and planning standpoint, to Mosby and his constituents, a time savings of seven minutes on a train that community members would likely never use, in exchange for the loss of homes and potential impact on safety, seemed like a great cost to a community.

“The reality is these infrastructure projects have never been to the benefit of Black and Brown communities in the country, particularly this neighborhood in Baltimore; they have already received the short end of the stick,” says Mosby, emphasizing how this project fits into the larger history of racism in planning in the city. “It’s been for a greater good [of the entire city] at the expense of Black and Brown communities.”

As such he made sure this fact could not be ignored even for a project that had to be done to prevent impending disaster in the existing tunnel.

The project planning team heard these concerns and realized what they were doing wasn’t working. So we changed our strategy to ensure that meeting facilitators included our Black team members which included myself, Odessa Phillip from Assedu Consulting who led the community engagement efforts, Jacqueline Thorne from Maryland Department of Transportation, and Nikia Mack from the Baltimore City DOT. The fact that we looked like the community and connected with them on their terms while also serving in a leadership role helped establish and maintain trust. We also changed the format of the meetings to be less formulaic and more flexible with meeting format and frequency. The community engagement process included over two dozen meetings, with a lot of time spent listening, explaining, and ensuring that we would take as much time as needed to explain the scenarios of the tunnel alignment.

The meetings and interactions with this historically Black community did not start without their challenges. The consultants and rail company leading the project needed to understand the nuances of what had happened with major infrastructure projects in the past. They needed to understand that representation matters from the project team level, and that it is important to meet people where they are, using layman’s terms so everyone can understand the scope of the project. The neighbors were used to officials coming in to tell them what was going to happen to them and for them, instead of asking them about their needs and having interactive engagement early and often.

The project’s public engagement successes were related to the project team intentionally establishing trust and relationships with the community throughout and beyond the planning phase. Once the preferred alignment for the tunnel was selected, there was a mitigation agreement that accompanied the NEPA study’s Record of Decision for $50 million that would be dedicated for improvements to the impacted communities.

Even with its earlier challenges, this project serves as a case study of how to execute meaningful community engagement in otherwise disenfranchised communities. This project is a representation of planning and public engagement as a symbiotic organism. And it shows how equity needs to always be at the forefront of every project and engagement effort.

Lead photo: Governor Moore Visits the B&P Tunnel With President Biden by Patrick Siebert at 1800 Falls Road, Baltimore, MD, 21201. (Photo by Maryland GovPics / Flickr)

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Veronica P. McBeth, currently a Senior Advisor with the Federal Transit Administration, was the Transit Bureau Chief for the Baltimore City Department of Transportation from 2014-2018.

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