BALTIMORE (AP) — Greeted by the cheery honking of a train horn, President Joe Biden stood outside a dilapidated rail tunnel Monday that he estimates he’s walked through 1,000 times — fearing it could collapse decades later.
“For years, people have been talking about fixing this tunnel,” Biden told a crowd in Baltimore. “I actually went into a tunnel with some construction workers in the early 1980s. … This is a 150-year-old tunnel. You wonder how the hell it’s still worth it.”
“But we’re finally getting it right with the bipartisan infrastructure bill.”
The president came into familiar terrain to push through his 2021 infrastructure bill, a bipartisan victory that is boosting spending on major projects right now.
Biden said replacing the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel could cut what is now a 60-minute commute from Baltimore to Washington in half, giving daily riders more time with family and friends.
As a senator, the president regularly rode the tunnel home to Delaware on Amtrak. He rode “15% of the time with the engineers,” he said, and had a key to get to the back of the train.
The new tunnel will lead to 20,000 construction jobs and reduce car traffic and pollution, he said, “jobs for people I was thinking about on the train ride home at night.”
First opened in 1873 when Ulysses S. Grant was president, the tunnel first connected Philadelphia and Washington by rail. But over time, it became more of a choke point than a lifeline. There is only one tube and trains have to slow to just 30 mph (48 kilometers per hour) to pass the tight curve at the southern end.
When completed in about a decade, the new tunnel is expected to have two tubes with a total of up to four tracks and allow trains to travel at speeds in excess of 100 mph. It will be named after Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland and became a prominent abolitionist. The total project, which includes related bridges and equipment upgrades, could cost $6 billion.
Biden also announced labor agreements to facilitate the tunnel’s completion and ensure good wages for union workers, according to the White House. Maryland also agreed to commit $450 million to the construction.
No money has yet been allocated from federal infrastructure legislation. But the bill signed by Biden includes $24 billion in rail improvements along the Northeast Corridor, and up to $4.7 billion could be provided for the Baltimore tunnel, which will cover most of its costs.
Although several Maryland officials attended Biden’s speech, there is some local opposition to the new tunnel. The group Residents Against the Tunnels (RATT) opposes the project, fearing that the construction, the use of the tunnel for freight traffic and the noise and vibration from passing trains would damage the neighborhood above.
But for those who know the president from his days on the train, the project reflects a hard-earned attitude over years of commuting challenges.
Gregg Weaver, 69, got to know Biden while working as a conductor during his 42-year career with Amtrak. When he worked the morning shift on the southbound train, they sometimes had to hold up at Baltimore Penn Station because of tunnel problems.
“How it looks?” Biden asked as he reflected on 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’s traveled so much, he’s probably experienced everything there is to experience,” Weaver said.
Baltimore is the first of three trips this week that Biden has devoted to infrastructure. He will travel to New York on Tuesday to talk about plans for another new rail tunnel, this one under the Hudson River.
On Friday, Biden is headed to Philadelphia, which is also hosting the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting, to finalize the party’s primary plan. He will be 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, roughly 200,000 people traveled through the Baltimore tunnel each weekday. But since there were only two lines, any maintenance or problem threatened to seriously curtail travel.
In addition to building a new tunnel, the project would rehabilitate the existing version. It was damaged by corrosive salt water that flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
This story has been corrected to show that the current tunnel has 1 tube, not 1 track, and the new tunnel will have 2 tubes, not 2 tracks.