BALTIMORE (AP) — President Joe Biden was greeted Monday by the cheery sound of train horns as he stood in front of a dilapidated railroad tunnel he estimates he has passed through 1,000 times — a worried it might collapse.
“For years, people have been talking about fixing this tunnel,” Biden told a crowd in Baltimore. “Back in the early ’80s, I went into the tunnel with some construction workers. … It’s a 150-year-old tunnel. You wonder how the hell it’s still standing.”
“However, with the bipartisan infrastructure law, we finally got it done.”
The president has come to familiar territory to tout his 2021 infrastructure law, a bipartisan victory that is boosting spending on major programs.
Biden said replacing the Baltimore and Potomac tunnels could cut the current 60-minute commute from Baltimore to Washington in half, giving everyday commuters more time to spend with family and friends.
As a senator, the president often rode Amtrak through the tunnel back home in Delaware. He says he “rides with the engineer 15 percent of the time” and has a key to the back of the train.
The new tunnels will bring 20,000 construction jobs and reduce car traffic and pollution, he said, “the jobs of the 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, linking Philadelphia and Washington for the first time by rail. But over time, it’s more of a bottleneck than a lifeline. With only one tube, the train needs to slow down to 30 mph (48 km/h) to make the sharp turn at the southern end.
Once completed about a decade from now, the new tunnel is expected to have two tubes, have as many as four tracks in total, and allow trains to travel at speeds in excess of 100 mph. It will be named for Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland and became a noted abolitionist. The entire project, including associated bridge and equipment modernization, could cost $6 billion.
Biden also announced a labor deal aimed at smoothing the completion of the tunnel and ensuring good wages for union workers, according to the White House. Maryland also agreed to spend $450 million on construction.
Federal infrastructure legislation has yet to appropriate the funds. The law Biden signed, however, includes $24 billion for rail improvements along the Northeast Corridor and could provide up to $4.7 billion for the Baltimore Tunnel, covering most of its costs.
Even though multiple Maryland officials attended Biden’s speech, some locals opposed the new tunnel.Residents oppose tunnel group (RATT) opposed the project because of concerns that the noise and vibration from construction, use of the tunnel to transport goods, and passing trains would adversely affect communities above.
But for those who have known the president from the train, the project reflects the hard-won approach to commuting challenges over the years.
Gregg Weaver, 69, met Biden during his 42-year career as a conductor at Amtrak. When he worked the morning shift on southbound trains, they would sometimes have to wait at Baltimore’s Penn Station because of trouble ahead in the tunnel.
“How does it look?” Biden would ask if he had considered his schedule on Capitol Hill.
“The tunnel really complicates the whole thing. It’s a bottleneck,” said Weaver, who retired in 2013.
As for Biden, “he’s ridden so much, he’s probably been through everything,” Weaver said.
Baltimore is the first of three visits this week dedicated to infrastructure by Biden. On Tuesday, he will travel to New York to discuss plans for another new rail tunnel, one under the Hudson River.
On Friday, Biden will travel to Philadelphia, where the DNC is also holding its winter session to hammer out the party’s primary agendaHe will be joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, and the White House said his remarks will focus on replacing lead pipes, another key piece of infrastructure legislation.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 200,000 people traveled through the Baltimore Tunnel every weekday. But because there are only two tracks, any maintenance or issues have the potential to severely limit travel.
As well as building a new tunnel, the project will also restore the existing version. It was damaged by flooded corrosive salt water during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
This story has been corrected to show that the current tunnel has 1 tube instead of 1 track and the new tunnel will have 2 tubes instead of 2 tracks.