Why Biden is speaking Monday at the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel


The Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel is turning 150 this year and is still serving passengers. Trains crawl at 30 mph through its curves under West Baltimore, creating delays up and down the busy Washington-to-New York route.

President Biden is set to visit the decrepit structure Monday to announce how the $1 trillion infrastructure law will help to replace the Reconstruction-era tunnel — the oldest in the Northeast — and eliminate the railroad’s biggest chokepoint between Washington and New Jersey.

The tunnel is a major bottleneck for Amtrak, Maryland commuter trains and freight rail traffic that moves between Baltimore’s Penn Station and points south. A plan to replace it has been delayed for years, without viable funding.

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor stretches between Washington and Boston. It’s a busy stretch of railroad, with parts that date back almost 150 years. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

Biden’s visit marks an important milestone for getting the project to construction and comes as the administration begins to distribute billions of federal dollars to upgrade aging infrastructure. The White House said funding from the infrastructure law could contribute up to $4.7 billion of the project’s total cost, estimated at $6 billion.

Remaking the tunnel, the White House said, will “improve reliability, lower commuting times, and enhance safety and resilience.” It is also expected to create 20,000 construction jobs.

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Demolition, utility relocation and some track work will begin this year, officials said.

Amtrak plans to build single-track twin tunnels that would arc about a half-mile north of the existing tunnel. The carrier has been working on the design and negotiating property acquisitions, while promising that the tunnel — to be named after Maryland native and abolitionist Frederick Douglass — will carry electric-powered trains to reduce environmental effects on nearby Baltimore neighborhoods.

Once completed, trains could travel up to 100 mph in that stretch, while capacity in the tunnel would nearly triple. Officials estimate a new structure would mean average savings of seven hours of train delays on a weekday.

“It’s hard to overstate what a big deal this is for Maryland,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in a statement. “Replacing this tunnel with the new Frederick Douglass Tunnel will not only improve rail service for travelers and commuters it will also drive more growth and opportunity to our state by slashing the travel time from D.C. to Baltimore to just 30 minutes and expanding business at the Port.”

Although no specific funding allocations have yet been announced, the Department of Transportation late last year identified the Baltimore project among more than a dozen century-old bridges and tunnels in the Northeast set to receive $9 billion through a grant program — one of several funding sources.

A 148-year-old tunnel is the biggest rail bottleneck between D.C. and New Jersey. Here’s the new plan to replace it.

The tunnel project already received $44 million in federal funding for preliminary engineering and permitting, and Maryland has committed to contributing $450 million.

At Monday’s event, officials are also announcing multiple labor agreements they say will assure good jobs and lower chances of labor disputes that could delay construction.

Of the 15 century-old bridges and tunnels on a list of “major backlog” projects in the Northeast, the B&P is by far the oldest. It opened in 1873, when Ulysses S. Grant was president, constructed out of brick and stone masonry. It was last rehabilitated in the 1980s, and according to federal documents, it requires “continual repairs” to keep up.

A 2011 report found that “the physical condition” of the tunnel required that it be rebuilt or replaced within the next 10 to 20 years. The Federal Railroad Administration has declared the tunnel structurally deficient and unable to meet projected demands.

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It has critical structural problems, including water issues and brick deterioration, according to a federal review of the project. Water-saturated soil beneath the tunnel is causing its floor slabs to sink, forcing Amtrak to make costly and repeated repairs. The tunnel also requires frequent inspections and maintenance to keep operations safe.

In 2023, there will be a new fast train between Washington, D.C. and Boston. See how the new trains go from aluminum car shells to ready for passengers. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

The 1.4-mile long tunnel is a crucial piece of the network connecting Washington to Boston, moving more than 259 million passengers each year. Because there are no alternative tracks for passenger trains, officials said a tunnel outage would be catastrophic for train travel in the corridor. Passengers moving through it encounter chronic delays: more than 10 percent of weekday trains are behind schedule and delays occur on 99 percent of weekdays, according to the White House.

In June 2021, Maryland and Amtrak announced a deal to move forward on a replacement plan within the decade.

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