Amtrak train improvements come thanks to Biden’s infrastructure law


Long-needed improvements are coming to rail travel along the nation’s busy Northeast Corridor, thanks in part to the federal infrastructure funding package that President Joe Biden signed into law in the fall of 2021.

The president is making two major funding announcements this week to address bottlenecks in the century-old rail tunnels in Baltimore and New York City — two projects that have struggled for years to raise enough money to get off the ground.

Construction is expected to begin this year, but completion is years away.

In Maryland, the 150-year-old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel will be replaced by two new tubes for Amtrak and Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) trains.

Passing beneath densely populated west Baltimore, the 1.4-mile tunnel is the oldest on the Northeast Corridor railroad and the only way for certain trains to travel south from Baltimore’s Penn Station to Washington, D.C., and Virginia.

More than 10 percent of weekday trains are late, according to Amtrak. The tight curves in the tunnel currently require trains to slow down to 30 mph. The tunnel also suffers from various age-related problems, such as excessive water infiltration, deteriorating construction and a sinking floor.

The improvements are expected to nearly triple capacity in the tunnel and soften the curves, allowing trains to travel at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour. There are also plans for new signal systems, five new road and rail bridges in the area surrounding the tunnel, and a new MARC station in West Baltimore that is accessible to Americans with disabilities.

The White House said Monday that the project could receive up to $4.7 billion in funding from the infrastructure act. The Maryland Transportation Agency has committed $450 million. In total, the new tunnel project is expected to cost around $6 billion.

The project previously received $44 million through a 2009 federal stimulus package called the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act for preliminary engineering and permitting. But a reliable source of funding was lacking to continue construction.

The new tunnel will be named after Maryland native and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Approximately 200,000 passengers ride Amtrak or New Jersey Transit trains that run between New York and New Jersey under the Hudson River every weekday.

First discovered in 1910, the tunnel has several age-related problems and also suffered damage when Hurricane Sandy flooded the pipes with salt water in 2012.

Still in the early stages, the latest plans call for building a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and then rehabilitating the existing tunnel, known as the North River Tunnel.

In 2019, New York and New Jersey created the Portal Development Commission to help facilitate the project. Last year, the commission estimated it could cost $16.1 billion and predicted a 2038 completion date.

Funding sources are still being determined, but are expected to include federal, state, local and possibly private funding.

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled an earlier version of the plan to build a new tunnel in 2010.

The White House said Tuesday that Amtrak, which owns the tunnel, will receive a $292 million grant from the infrastructure act to help complete construction of a concrete shell underground on the Manhattan side of the river. The concrete shell will protect the path of the new tunnel from the banks of the Hudson River to Penn Station in New York.

If that shell isn’t built now, the White House said, foundations from the new Hudson Yards development will likely get in the way of the tunnel and make the project extremely difficult.

The $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package was signed into law in November 2021 after receiving bipartisan support in Congress. It would provide an estimated $550 billion in new federal investment over five years for everything from bridges and roads to the nation’s public transit, broadband, water and energy systems.

Funds are provided in two ways: through formulated programs that send money directly to states, and through competitive grant programs that require state and local agencies to apply.

Many of the formula programs have long sent federal money to states on an annual basis, but now provide much more funding over the five-year period covered by the infrastructure law.

For example, the Federal Highway Administration awarded almost $60 billion to states last year through 12 formula programs to support investments in roads, bridges and tunnels; reducing carbon emissions; and safety improvements. That’s a $15.4 billion increase over fiscal 2021, the last fiscal year before the infrastructure law is enacted.

Dozens of large, specific projects have been selected for funding through grant programs over the past year. Funding for America’s Rebuilding Infrastructure Grants Program (known as INFRA), which is dedicated to highway and freight projects of national or regional significance, increased by more than 50% last year. About $1.5 billion was allocated to 26 transportation projects in September.

In August, the Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure with Resilience and Equity program, known as RAISE, awarded $2.2 billion to 166 specific road, bridge, transit, rail, port or intermodal transportation projects across the country. In 2021, the program could afford to finance only 90 projects.

The infrastructure law also created new funding programs, such as the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program, which awarded $615 million to states last year. This money can be used to install public charging stations for electric vehicles.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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