How Amtrak Is Harming a Small, Black Community in West Baltimore
Photo: Aris / Unsplash

How Amtrak Is Harming a Small, Black Community in West Baltimore

The building of new tunnels, according to the residents in the neighborhood, will have long-term consequences

The Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel is a busy 150 year-old passenger and freight rail line used by Amtrak, Norfolk Southern and regional commuter trains. Built in 1873, the tunnel is now crumbling. Amtrak wants to build new tunnels for the riders who can afford their services to travel freely without worry. But the tunnels mean the opposite of freedom for some Black people. The new tunnels are designed to speed right through predominantly Black, historic neighborhoods in Baltimore and many Black households will be forcibly displaced along the way. 

I’m no engineer, but marginalized, underserved Black communities cannot always be the best pathways for transportation construction, and yet around the country many networks such as highways are built to cut through them.

A lot of people in affected communities are crying out, responding appropriately to the environmental, civil rights and procedural concerns, but in this instance Amtrak is hell-bent on expansion despite the adverse effects the build will have on the near communities. 

We asked eight Black men from the neighborhood about the build. Their stance: these tunnels would be a far departure from “doing the right thing,” Amtrak’s proclaimed core value.

Orlando Dominguez, 54, Multidisciplinary Artist

“Having grown up in an urban environment and seeing the impact of pollution makes me very concerned about Amtrak. Considering the level of impact, from the air and noise quality to the overall quality of life, I may choose to be displaced. The tunnels are going to have an environmentally unjust impact on Black communities, and for Amtrak to name the tunnel after Frederick Douglass is a slap in the face. It's insensitive. I don’t see how Black people can continue to support President Biden who backs the project after it was Black people who uplifted him and were instrumental in getting him into office...I just want to know: Where’s the safe space for Black people? As a Black man, I don't know if there's ever a time to be comfortable. I never had that luxury. We’re constantly on the run and the metaphor is the tunnel.” 

Darryl McClain, 54, Assistant Project Director

“I have a four year old at Dorothy I. Height Elementary where Amtrak plans to build a ventilation facility across the street. The project has been in the works for years, but I wasn’t aware of this until late last year and I’m on the Parent Teacher Association. To this day, many of even the most attentive and active parents in the school are sadly still unaware to no fault of their own. When Amtrak met with the school board, they didn’t discuss the facility with them. 

The callous disregard for the young children and parents who are going to be impacted is sickening. It’s almost like a cancer diagnosis that puts you on edge and stays with you. If my child comes home with just the slightest cough, a tingle goes up my spine. I think about what will be inhaled by children who are simply going to school in a zip code with already disproportionately high rates of pediatric asthma.”

Quentin Whaley, 70, Maintenance Service Provider 

“The tragedy in making the decision on the tunnel placement is that Amtrak chose to prioritize minimizing the impacts on an asphalt plant, P. Flanigan & Sons, over Black men and their sons. It signifies that Amtrak sees corporations more important than people. Amtrak seemingly only protects their ecosystem, and P. Flanigan & Sons is in bed with the Department of Transportation. It’s located near a predominantly Black community and it’s probably not coincidental that many Black people in the area are being diagnosed with cancer-related conditions, including my now-deceased father. There are known carcinogens generated from asphalt, and so it bewilders that we’ll be subjected to even harsher environmental consequences from Amtrak. The $50 million trade-off from the Amtrak community mitigation fund will never be equal to the project’s long-term effects. The suffering is incalculable.” 

Dr. Arlen Cullors, 59, Pharmacist 

“[Baltimore] has seen the same thing before. Environmental injustices like the Highway to Nowhere for Route 40 was run right down the middle of a Black business district. A flourishing Black community was completely ruined. It reminds me of my hometown, Houston, where they put a highway extension called [Interstate] 288. It’s the same story. A thriving middle class Black community destroyed. There's a proposal to run a transit system through a Black community in Houston now, concurrently to Amtrak planning to build a transit/freight system [with an exhaust system right across a school] in West Baltimore, which is predominately Black. It doesn’t make sense. It degrades our community’s built value. Great achievements and strives in our community have been made possible because we have great love and expectations for our homes, our community and for our city. Amtrak should follow their mission to ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Mission statements and statements of corporate beliefs should be more than words.”

Rolando Maxwell, 67, Law Enforcement  

“David and Goliath. That’s how I look at it. The federal government has awoken a Goliath in Amtrak, and with the federal government’s armor, Amtrak is coming into West Baltimore with the attitude of we can do whatever and your small, Black community can’t do a thing. I also look at it, as far as the people in West Baltimore, how many of the residents in these neighborhoods take Amtrak? Not enough. This project has been in the works for years, and the goals remain the same. It’s the neighborhood that’s changed. Amtrak’s positioning the existing tunnel from Bolton Hill, a once industrial and commercial area now a predominantly white community, to Black neighborhoods. Where’s the thorough and comprehensive analysis of how the tunnel will affect racial groups? Did Amtrak analyze the racial impact? Don’t think so.” 

Tyrone, 37 (Tyrone requested to remain anonymous so we are omitting his last name and profession.)

“I understand that transportation provides Black people the freedom to travel and commute. At the same time, more often than not, the systems in which transportation is built hold Black communities confined. There’s a duality to transportation, the benefits and detriments, and the two are not equally shared between Black and white communities. That’s why I don’t believe that the Amtrak tunnel project is for or in favor of the Black community. If it was, it’s unusual that I wasn’t aware of the plans for an emergency ventilation system so close to my home until now, and I work in the city government! Why not widely disclose all the project details if it’s so beneficial? It’s sad because corruption plagues the city, and we’re seeing the bifurcation of Black public officials and the vulnerable Black communities who voted them in. For many officials, personal interests, private career gains and financial incentives take precedence. Anything to get ahead, while leaving behind your Blackness and Black men, just as the system’s designed.”

Procedural Concerns

Daryl Davis, 44, Serial Entrepreneur

“[Amtrak] told my family that they don’t have to comply with state and local laws as this quasi-federal agency but want to be a community partner. As a Black man, hearing that strikes a chord in a very negative way because as Black people we’ve often been told we should be grateful for what we get or have, and not that we have rights. If Amtrak really wanted to be a community partner, they’d put the community’s mind at ease. They’d uncap their liability, engage the community (versus divisively engage individuals, case by case) and be more forthcoming with information. I’ve received information from our elected officials that they received from Amtrak and it was misleading. It was different than what Amtrak has given out in individual negotiations and community meetings. You’d think elected public officials would have the correct information ready to disseminate to their constituents. If our elected officials don’t have the accurate information, how are they able to give approval or speak on behalf of the residents of the community?”

Darnell Shaffer, 34, Loan Officer 

“I’m concerned about the value of homes in this community. There isn't a single indication of any positive impacts to home values or meaningful benefits for impacted communities. The home values will drop with the compromised historic structures, train vibrations and noise and air pollution. As a byproduct of systemic racism, lower rates of Black homeownership and home values will remain. When I went to an Amtrak Open House, I asked a representative if eminent domain [where the government is allowed to take individuals’ private property by force and transfer it to others for public use] was used. She deviated. The quintessential big business trying to exploit Black communities. It's angering that elected leaders don't speak up on behalf of residents. But of even more concern is the fact that Amtrak has done the bare minimum to respond to past emergencies. Perhaps that’s why Amtrak deflects our questions about safety and doesn’t have an emergency plan for the tunnel to this day. God forbid there’s an emergency. Our local authorities don’t have the resources to respond.”