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President Biden Visits Old Baltimore Rail Tunnel Needing Billions of Dollars in Upgrades

Tue January 31, 2023 - Northeast Edition
Washington Post & The White House

The B&P Tunnel Replacement Program will modernize and transform a 4-mi. section of the Northeast Corridor. It includes two new high-capacity tubes for electrified passenger trains, new roadway and railroad bridges, new rail systems and track, and a new ADA-accessible West Baltimore MARC station. (Map courtesy of Amtrak)
The B&P Tunnel Replacement Program will modernize and transform a 4-mi. section of the Northeast Corridor. It includes two new high-capacity tubes for electrified passenger trains, new roadway and railroad bridges, new rail systems and track, and a new ADA-accessible West Baltimore MARC station. (Map courtesy of Amtrak)

Maryland's Baltimore & Potomac (B&P) Tunnel is turning 150 in 2023 and is still serving passengers. However, trains crawl along at 30 mph through its curves under West Baltimore, creating delays up and down the busy Washington-to-New York route.

President Biden visited the decrepit structure Jan. 30 to announce how the $1 trillion infrastructure law will help to replace the Reconstruction-era tunnel — the oldest in the Northeast — and eliminate the railroad's biggest chokepoint between Washington and New Jersey.

The tunnel has long been a major bottleneck for Amtrak, Maryland commuter trains and freight rail traffic that moves between Baltimore's Penn Station and points south. A plan to fund and replace it has seen constant delays.

The Washington Post reported that Biden's visit to the 19th century tunnel marks an important milestone for getting the project to construction and comes as the administration is beginning to distribute billions of federal dollars to upgrade aging infrastructure.

The President, who rode Amtrak for more than three decades while in Congress, has been a longtime supporter of investment in passenger rail while advocating for modernizing the Northeast Corridor.

The infrastructure law, passed in late 2020, provides $66 billion for rail, an unprecedented boost in federal aid for trains and a major turnaround for a railroad that has struggled to draw financial support.

The White House said funding from the law could contribute up to $4.7 billion of the Maryland project's total cost, estimated at $6 billion. Remaking the tunnel, Biden's office noted, will "improve reliability, lower commuting times, and enhance safety and resilience."

Although no specific funding allocations have yet been announced, the U.S. Department of Transportation late in 2022 identified the Baltimore tunnel project among more than a dozen century-old bridges and tunnels in the Northeast due to receive $9 billion through a grant program — one of several funding sources.

The B&P Tunnel project already received $44 million in federal funding for preliminary engineering and permitting, and the state of Maryland has committed to contributing $450 million.

The effort also is expected to create 20,000 construction jobs.

Demolition, utility relocation and some track work will begin this year, the Post noted.

New Tunnel Could Triple Current Capacity

Amtrak plans to build single-track twin tunnels that would arc about a half-mile north of the existing Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel. The rail carrier has been working on the design and negotiating property acquisitions, while promising that the tunnel — to be named after Maryland native and abolitionist Frederick Douglass — will carry electric-powered trains to reduce environmental effects on nearby Baltimore neighborhoods.

Once completed, trains could travel up to 100 mph in that stretch, while capacity in the tunnel would nearly triple. The White House predicted a new structure would mean average savings of seven hours of train delays on a weekday.

"It's hard to overstate what a big deal this is for Maryland," Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in a statement. "Replacing this tunnel with the new Frederick Douglass Tunnel will not only improve rail service for travelers and commuters, but it will also drive more growth and opportunity to our state by slashing the travel time from D.C. to Baltimore to just 30 minutes and expanding business at the Port [of Baltimore]."

Van Hollen's colleague, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, praised the investment as trains passed by during Biden's visit Jan. 30. He said the project is critical to improving transportation for thousands of train users.

"The person who knows this best is Joe Biden because he's been stuck by the delays in this tunnel many times as a passenger of Amtrak." Cardin said. "This tunnel will provide the future that we need in a modern way to deal with passenger rail in our community."

The President was joined at the Baltimore event by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Amtrak leaders and newly inaugurated Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat.

During Biden's visit, officials also announced multiple labor agreements they said will assure good jobs and lower chances of labor disputes that could delay construction, according to the Post.

B&P Tunnel Dates Back to Ulysses Grant's Presidency

According to the Post, the Maryland project, along with funding and improving an existing 110-year-old rail tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York, tops the list of Amtrak's rebuilding priorities. The goal of each one is to ultimately cut the travel time between Washington and Boston, a corridor that is the spine of Amtrak's operations.

Of the 15 century-old bridges and tunnels on a list of "major backlog" projects in the Northeast, the B&P is by far the oldest. Constructed out of brick and stone masonry, the tunnel opened in 1873 when former Union Army Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was president. It was last rehabilitated in the 1980s, and, according to federal documents, it requires "continual repairs" to keep up.

The Post reported a 2011 report found that "the physical condition" of the B&P Tunnel required that it be rebuilt or replaced within the next 10 to 20 years. The Federal Railroad Administration has since declared the underground passage structurally deficient and unable to meet projected demands.

Its critical structural problems include water issues and brick deterioration, according to a federal review of the project. Water-saturated soil beneath the tunnel is causing its floor slabs to sink, forcing Amtrak to make costly and repeated repairs. The tunnel also requires frequent inspections and maintenance to keep operations safe.

The 1.4-mi.-long B&P Tunnel is a crucial piece of the Washington to Boston network, moving more than 259 million passengers each year. Because there are no alternative tracks for passenger trains, officials said a tunnel outage would be catastrophic for train travel in the corridor. Passengers traveling through it encounter chronic delays: more than 10 percent of weekday trains are behind schedule and delays occur on 99 percent of weekdays, according to a White House news release.

In June 2021, Maryland and Amtrak announced a deal to move forward on a replacement plan for the train tunnel within the next decade.

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