Biden visit to Baltimore highlights rail tunnel project

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ulysses S. Grant was still president when workers completed the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, which first connected Philadelphia and Washington via rail travel.

But 150 years later, the tunnel that runs under some of Baltimore’s residential neighborhoods is more of a bottleneck than a lifeline. There is only one track, and trains must slow to just 30 mph to make a sharp turn on the south side.

It’s a problem well known to President Joe Biden, who spent decades commuting on Amtrak from Delaware to Washington while serving as a U.S. Senator. Last week he remembered walking through the tunnel, lit only by lights on a string as water dripped from the roof.

“There is a great concern,” he said, “that part of it could collapse.”

The tunnel is slated to be replaced with help from the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill being championed by Biden, and he plans to visit Monday to talk about the massive investment.

When the new tunnel is ready in about ten years, it is expected to have two tracks and be able to run trains in excess of 100 miles per hour. It will be named for Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland and became a prominent abolitionist. The total project, including related bridges and equipment modernization, could cost $6 billion.

Biden plans to announce labor agreements designed to facilitate completion of the tunnel and guarantee good wages for unionized workers, the White House said. Maryland has also agreed to $450 million for construction.

No money has yet been allocated from federal infrastructure law. However, the bill signed by 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 most of the costs.

Gregg Weaver, 69, met Biden while working as a conductor during a 42-year career with Amtrak. Sometimes when he was on morning shift on a southbound train, they had to wait at Baltimore Penn Station because of problems at the tunnel.

“How does it look?” would ask Biden as he pondered his schedule on Capitol Hill.

“The tunnel can really complicate the whole thing,” says Weaver, who retired in 2013. “It’s a bottleneck.”

As for Biden, “he’s driven so much, he’s probably been through everything there is to experience,” Weaver said.

Baltimore is the first of Biden’s two trips this week devoted to infrastructure. He will travel to New York on Tuesday to discuss plans for another new rail tunnel, this one under the Hudson River.

“It will reduce commute times, improve safety and make travel more reliable,” Biden said.

Every working day before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 200,000 people drove through the current tunnel, which was completed 113 years ago. But because there are only two tracks, any maintenance or problem threatens to seriously limit travel.

In addition to 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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