WASHINGTON (AP) — Ulysses S. Grant was still president when workers completed the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, which connected Philadelphia and Washington by train for the first time.
But 150 years later, the tunnel that passes under some Baltimore residential neighborhoods is more of a choke point than a lifeline. There is only one track and trains must slow to just 30 mph to navigate a sharp bend at the south end.
It’s a problem President Joe Biden knows well, having commuted from Delaware to Washington on Amtrak for decades as a U.S. senator. Last week, he recalled walking along the tunnel, lit only by lights on a string as water poured from the roof.
“There is great concern,” he said, “that part of it could collapse.”
The tunnel is expected to be replaced with the help of bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure legislation championed by Biden, and he plans to visit on Monday to talk about the massive investment.
When completed in about ten years, the new tunnel is expected to have two tracks and allow trains to travel over 100 miles per hour. It will be named after Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland and became a leading abolitionist. The total project, which includes related bridges and equipment upgrades, could cost $6 billion.
Biden plans to announce labor agreements designed to facilitate the completion of the tunnel and ensure good wages for union workers, according to the White House. Maryland has also agreed to commit $450 million for construction.
No funding has yet been provided under federal infrastructure legislation. However, the law Biden signed includes $24 billion for rail improvements along the Northeast Corridor, and up to $4.7 billion could be provided for the Baltimore Tunnel, covering the majority of its cost.
Gregg Weaver, 69, got to know Biden while working as a bandleader during a 42-year career at Amtrak. When he was working the morning shift on a southbound train, they sometimes had to wait at Baltimore Penn Station due to upcoming problems in the tunnel.
” What does it look like ? Biden would ask when reflecting on 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 rode so much, he probably experienced everything,” Weaver said.
Baltimore is the first of Biden’s two infrastructure trips this week. On Tuesday, he will travel to New York to talk about plans for another new rail tunnel, this one under the Hudson River.
“It’s going to reduce travel times, improve safety, make travel more reliable,” Biden said.
About 200,000 people passed through the current tunnel, which was completed 113 years ago, every working day before the COVID-19 pandemic. But as there are only two lanes, any maintenance or issues threaten to severely restrict movement.
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.