Connecting Philadelphia and Washington by rail for the first time, the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel opened when Ulysses S. Grant was president.
That was 1873 and now, 150 years later, the passageway that runs under Baltimore neighborhoods is a bottleneck that will be refurbished with funding from the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Job Acts that President Joe Biden signed into law in November 2022.
Standing in front of the tunnel and next to an Amtrak train, Biden delivered remarks on Jan. 30 outlining the $6 billion Baltimore-Potomac Tunnel Replacement Program that includes up to $4.7 billion in infrastructure bill funding.
”I’ve been through this tunnel a thousand times,” Biden said, reminiscing of when he traveled the railway when he was a Delaware senator. “When folks talk about how badly the Baltimore tunnel needs an upgrade, you don’t need me to tell you, I’ve been there.”
He recalled walking the entire length of the tunnel, which was illuminated solely by lights on a string while water dripped from the walls.
“Everything has to slow down, and there’s a great worry that part of it could collapse.”
Spanning 1.4 miles, the oldest tunnel on the Northeast Corridor connects Baltimore’s Penn Station to points south.
Considered the largest bottleneck for the bustling rail corridor between New York City and Washington, it carries 9 million passengers annually. If the tunnel unexpectedly closed, there are no detours. Currently, there’s one tube in the tunnel.
“The tunnel’s tight curvature and steep incline require trains to reduce speeds to 30 mph. These issues create chronic delays—more than 10 percent of weekday trains are delayed, and delays occur on 99 percent of weekdays,” according to a White House statement.
Officials estimate the project will be completed by 2032.
Once finished, the Baltimore-Potomac Tunnel Replacement Program “will build a new tunnel with two tubes along an alignment with softer curves; ventilation, and emergency egress facilities; new signaling systems, overhead catenary, and track; five new roadway and railroad bridges in the area surrounding the tunnel; and a new ADA-accessible West Baltimore MARC station,” the White House statement announced.
The new tunnel will be named in recognition of Frederick Douglass, a Maryland native who was an abolitionist, civil rights leader, and frequent railroad passenger who boarded a train in Baltimore to escape slavery.
Upon completion, the tunnel’s capacity will triple, the White House said. Trains will reach up to 110 miles per hour compared to the current 30-mile-per-hour limit.
Biden was joined by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Democratic Gov. Wes Moore, and Maryland Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris van Hollen, among other officials.
The infrastructure legislation represents the most significant investment in American roads and bridges since the interstate highway system was created, and the most significant investment in rail in America since Amtrak was established, Biden said.
President in New York
Baltimore was the first of multiple stops Biden has dedicated to touting the infrastructure bill. He’ll travel to New York on Jan. 31 to detail plans for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. At an event in Philadelphia on Feb. 3, Biden will discuss funding for replacing toxic lead pipes and providing clean water.
In the new year, Biden has reiterated a message of bipartisan cooperation. On Jan. 30, he spoke about his appearance earlier this month in northern Kentucky, the first stop on his nationwide tour promoting improvements made by the infrastructure bill.
The legislation includes more than $1.63 billion in federal grants to Ohio and Kentucky to improve the Brent Spence Bridge, which carries vehicles along Interstate 71 and Interstate 75 over the Ohio River, and construct a companion bridge to help ease traffic on the existing structure.
Opened in 1963, the Brent Spence Bridge spans the Ohio River and connects Cincinnati and northern Kentucky.
Symbolizing the country’s crumbling infrastructure, the bridge was declared functionally obsolete by the Federal Highway Administration in the 1990s. It was designed for 80,000 vehicles a day but now surpasses 160,000 daily along its narrow lanes.
The new bridge will be constructed next to the current structure to handle traffic from Interstate 71 and Interstate 75. The existing bridge will be refurbished to carry local traffic.
20,000 Construction Jobs
The project is expected to break ground in late 2023 and is projected to be finished in 2029.
“Folks have been talking about fixing it for decades. But now we’re finally going to get it done. And we’re not stopping there,” Biden said on Jan. 30.
During his remarks at the tunnel, Biden also said that the project is expected to create around 20,000 construction jobs.
The tunnel will be constructed by union workers, according to an agreement signed between Amtrak and the Baltimore-DC Building and Construction Trades Council.
“Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class did, and unions built the middle class,” Biden said.
Later in his speech, Biden emphasized the creation of U.S. manufacturing jobs and boasted about accomplishments in the first two years of his term that include the infrastructure bill and the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act.
“When America sees these projects popping up across the country, it sends a really important message. When we work together, there’s not a … thing we can’t do,” Biden said.
“It’s never been a good bet to bet against America. I’ve never been more optimistic about our future.”