Greeted by the gleeful blare of a train horn, President Joe Biden stood outside a derelict railroad tunnel he estimated he had traversed 1,000 times on Monday — and feared for decades it might collapse.
“For years people have been talking about fixing this tunnel,” Biden told a crowd in Baltimore. “In the early 80s I actually went into the tunnel with some construction workers. … This is a 150 year old tunnel. You wonder how the hell it still stands.”
“But with the non-partisan infrastructure law, we can finally do it.”
The president came into familiar territory to promote his 2021 infrastructure bill, a bipartisan victory that is boosting spending on major projects right now.
Biden said swapping the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnels could cut the now 60-minute commute from Baltimore to Washington in half and give daily drivers extra time with family and friends.
As a senator, the president regularly rode Amtrak home to Delaware through the tunnel. He rode with engineers “15% of the time,” he said, and had a key to get into the back of the trains.
The new tunnel will create 20,000 construction jobs and reduce car traffic and pollution, he said, “jobs for people I used to think about when I was riding the train home at night.”
The tunnel, first opened in 1873 when Ulysses S. Grant was President, connected Philadelphia and Washington by rail for the first time. But over time, it became more of a bottleneck than a lifeline. There is only one subway, and trains have to decelerate to just 30 mph (48 km/h) to make a tight turn at the southern end.
When completed in about a decade, the new tunnel will have two tubes with a total of up to four tracks and will allow trains to travel at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. It is named for Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland and became a prominent abolitionist. The overall project, which includes the associated bridges and equipment modernization, could cost $6 billion.
Biden also announced labor arrangements designed to make it easier to complete the tunnel and ensure good wages for union workers, according to the White House. Maryland has also agreed to provide $450 million for construction.
No funds have yet been granted from the Federal Infrastructure Act. However, the legislation signed by Biden will provide $24 billion for rail improvements along the Northeast Corridor, and the Baltimore Tunnel could have as much as $4.7 billion, covering most of its costs.
Even when several Maryland officials attended Biden’s speech, there was some local opposition to the new tunnel. The Residents Against the Tunnels (RATT) group opposes the project over concerns that the construction, use of the tunnel for freight, and noise and vibration from passing trains would damage the neighborhood above.
But for those who know the President from his time on the train, the project reflects an approach hard-earned over years of commuting challenges.
Gregg Weaver, 69, met Biden while working as a conductor during his 42-year career at Amtrak. When he worked the early shift on a southbound train, they sometimes had to wait at Baltimore Penn Station because of trouble in the tunnel.
“How does it look like?” Biden would ask while considering his schedule on Capitol Hill.
“The tunnel can really complicate things,” said Weaver, who retired in 2013. “It’s a bottleneck.”
As for Biden, “he’s driven so much that he’s probably experienced everything there is to experience,” Weaver said.
Baltimore is the first of three trips this week that Biden has dedicated to infrastructure. On Tuesday he travels to New York to discuss plans for another new rail tunnel, this one under the Hudson River.
On Friday, Biden travels to Philadelphia, where the Democratic National Committee is also holding its winter meeting, to set the party’s primary schedule. He is joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, and the White House says his remarks will focus on replacing lead pipes, another key piece of infrastructure legislation.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, around 200,000 people traveled through the Baltimore Tunnel every business day. But since there are only two tracks, any maintenance or problem threatens to severely limit travel.
In addition to building a new tunnel, the project would refurbish the existing version. It was damaged by corrosive salt water that flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Chris Megerian reports for The Associated Press.