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Biden touts plans to replace 150-year-old rail tunnel in Baltimore visit

Biden, McConnell tout Kentucky bridge project
President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tout Kentucky bridge project 03:11

Ulysses S. Grant was still president when workers finished the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, which connected Philadelphia and Washington through rail travel for the first time.

But 150 years later, the tunnel that runs under some of Baltimore's residential neighborhoods is more of a chokepoint than a lifeline. There's 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.

It's a problem that President Biden knows well, having commuted from Delaware to Washington on Amtrak for decades while serving as a U.S. senator. 

"I made 1,000 trips through this tunnel, so I've been through this tunnel 1,000 times," Mr. Biden said during an event outside the tunnel on Monday, recounting the miles he had logged on the train. "But when folks talk about how badly the Baltimore tunnel needs an upgrade, you don't need me to tell you. I've been there."

He recalled walking through the tunnel with construction workers in the early 1980s and questioned how, at 150 years old, the tunnel is still intact.

"The structure is deteriorating, the roof is leaking, the floor is sinking," the president said. "This is the United States of America for God's sake. We know better than that."

The tunnel is slated to be replaced with help from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure legislation championed by the Democratic president, and he visited Baltimore on Monday to talk about the massive investment.

"This is just the beginning of having a 21st century rail system that's been so long overdue in this country," the president said.

Mr. Biden was joined in Baltimore by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Gov. Wes Moore, Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, and other leaders.

President Biden delivers remarks outside the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel in Maryland on Jan. 30, 2023. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Once completed roughly a decade from now, the new tunnel is expected to have two tracks and allow trains to travel more than 100 mph. 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 new tunnel will be named for Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery in Maryland and became a prominent abolitionist. The total project, which includes related bridges and equipment modernization, could cost $6 billion.

Mr. Biden plans to announce labor agreements that are intended to smooth the tunnel's completion and ensure good wages for union workers, according to the White House. The project will generate an estimated 30,000 jobs, including roughly 20,000 direct construction jobs, most of which don't require a college degree, the White House said. Maryland has also agreed to commit $450 million for construction.

No money has yet been awarded from the federal infrastructure legislation. However, the law signed by Mr. Biden includes $24 billion for rail improvements along the Northeast Corridor, and up to $4.7 billion could be provided for the Baltimore tunnel, covering the majority of its cost.

Gregg Weaver, 69, got to know Mr. Biden while working as a conductor during a 42-year career with Amtrak. When he was working the morning shift on a southbound train, sometimes they would have to hold at Baltimore Penn Station because of trouble ahead at the tunnel.

"How's it look?" Mr. Biden would ask as he pondered his schedule on Capitol Hill.

"The tunnel can really complicate the whole thing," said Weaver, who retired in 2013. "It's a bottleneck."

As for Mr. Biden, "he rode so much, he probably experienced everything there is to experience," Weaver said.

Baltimore is the first of Mr. Biden's two trips dedicated to infrastructure this week. On Tuesday, he will travel to New York to talk about plans for another new rail tunnel, this one under the Hudson River. His visits on the East Coast follow a trip to Kentucky earlier this month, where he appeared alongside Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to tout investments from the infrastructure package to upgrade the Brent Spence Bridge, which crosses the Ohio River to connect Kentucky and Ohio.

"We're not stopping there," he said, highlighting his administration's effort to provide high-speech internet to U.S. households, which will create roughly 200,000 jobs nationwide.

Roughly 200,000 people rode through the current Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, which was finished 113 years ago, every workday before the COVID-19 pandemic. But because there are only two tracks, any maintenance or problem threatens to severely constrict travel.

Besides building a new tunnel, the project would rehabilitate the existing version. It was damaged by corrosive salt water that flooded in during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

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