By CHRIS MEGERIAN Associated Press
Ulysses S. Grant was still president when travelers sped through the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, connecting Philadelphia and Washington by rail for the first time.
A century and a half later, the tunnel that runs under Baltimore residential neighborhoods is more of a chokepoint than a lifeline. There’s only one tube, and trains need to slow to just 30 mph (48 kilometers per hour) to navigate a tight turn on the southern end.
It’s a problem that President Joe Biden knows well, having commuted from Delaware to Washington on Amtrak for decades while serving as a U.S. senator. Last week he recalled walking the length of the tunnel, illuminated only by lights on a string as water dripped from the roof.
“There’s a great worry,” he said, “that part of it could collapse.”
The tunnel is slated to be replaced with help from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure legislation championed by the Democratic president, and he was visiting Monday to talk about the massive investment.
Once completed roughly a decade from now, the new tunnel is expected to have two tubes, with up to four tracks total, and allow trains to travel more than 100 mph. It 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.
Biden was to announce labor agreements intended to smooth the tunnel’s completion and ensure good wages for union workers, according to the White House. 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 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 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?” 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 Biden, “he rode so much, he probably experienced everything there is to experience,” Weaver said.
Baltimore is the first of three trips that Biden has 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.
“It’s going to cut commute times, improve safety, make travel more reliable,” Biden said of the Baltimore tunnel.
Roughly 200,000 people rode through the current tunnel every workday before the COVID-19 pandemic. But because there are only two tracks, any maintenance or problem threatened 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.
On Friday, Biden is headed to Philadelphia, where the Democratic National Committee is also holding its winter meeting to finalize the party’s primary schedule. Biden will be joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, and the White House said his remarks will focus on replacing lead pipes, another key part of the infrastructure legislation.