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Northeast’s century-old rail bridges, tunnels land $9 billion overhaul

They were built in the eras of Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt. Now, Washington is backing a revamp.

The Reconstruction-era Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel system, the biggest chokepoint between Washington and New Jersey, will be replaced by single-track twin tunnels. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

More than a dozen century-old bridges and tunnels, the creaky backbone of the nation’s most important railroad corridor, are set to receive nearly $9 billion in new infrastructure grants, Transportation Department officials said last week, marking the biggest step yet to begin overhauling the busy-but-antiquated line running from Washington to Boston.

The projects include the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel, which opened in 1873, when Ulysses S. Grant was president. The 1.4-mile tunnel is now beset with crumbling brick and sinking floor slabs, leaving Amtrak trains creeping beneath West Baltimore at 30 mph on their way up and down the East Coast.

The list of “major backlog” projects federal officials say they are preparing to fund reads like a history of American infrastructure greatness frozen in amber, among them Connecticut’s Walk Bridge over the Norwalk River (Grover Cleveland), New Jersey’s Sawtooth Bridges between Newark Penn Station and Secaucus Junction (Theodore Roosevelt) and the North River Tunnel beneath the Hudson River (William Howard Taft). All are more than a hundred years old and in desperate need of overhauls.

“I know that may be hard to comprehend, but … that’s why we call it a backlog,” Amit Bose, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in an interview. “These projects have been waiting, waiting to get going — for the next hundred years.”

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Bose said the $66 billion in rail appropriations in last year’s infrastructure law is giving the nation a once-in-a-century chance to repair, rehab or replace the major bridges and tunnels along the Northeast Corridor, an economic and transportation link he calls “one of the country’s most significant publicly owned infrastructure assets,” while also expanding other routes nationally, as set out by Congress.

“This is absolutely a transformational time for rail in America,” Bose said. “It’s so important for us to make sure that this $9 billion, and subsequent rounds of funding, go to good use and go to those projects that are ready.”

The plans — as federal officials described in interviews, in a project inventory for the Northeast Corridor released last month, and in a formal “Notice of Funding Opportunity” being made public Thursday — are meant to help address the biggest chokepoints along the busy route, ultimately resulting in time savings for hundreds of thousands of travelers in the corridor.

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Pre-pandemic, the corridor carried over 800,000 passengers a day on over 2,000 trains operated by nine different railroads.

Mitch Warren, executive director of the Northeast Corridor Commission, which was created by Congress a decade ago to develop strategies to improve the stretch, said the $9 billion will bring “the first significant investment for the infrastructure in generations” and will help move a vision for the corridor from a wish list of projects to reality.

“It’s a major breakthrough,” Warren said. “A historic investment in the corridor.”

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He praised the Transportation Department for prioritizing investment on the aging bridges and tunnels, which he said are critical for the reliability of trains. The commission’s annual report shows that infrastructure failures represent the leading cause of delays in the system.

“If we can modernize and rebuild the infrastructure, we will have much more reliable trains,” he said. It will also bring other benefits, he said, including more frequent train service and trip-time improvements.

While $9 billion will only cover a fraction of the needs, Warren said, it will kick-start critical work. And, he said, the expectation is for more funding to go to those projects during the five years of funding under the infrastructure law. The commission, and its state and agency members, are seeking other federal grants, too. A report released by the commission last year called for $117 billion in investment covering more than 150 projects.

Amtrak chief executive Stephen Gardner said in a statement that the railroad, its partners and its customers “have been waiting for this moment for decades.”

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“These funds will kick off a new era of investment in the busiest railroad in North America, leading to enhanced reliability, capacity, and safety, while creating thousands of good-paying jobs in communities across the region,” Gardner said.

More than 200 million trips are taken each year by commuters and intercity passengers along the corridor, according to the Transportation Department.

“Americans deserve to have the best rail system in the world, and the investments we are announcing today will serve to modernize the Northeast Corridor for generations of passengers,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.

Among the projects is the multibillion-dollar replacement of the 149-year-old Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel, a major bottleneck for Amtrak, Maryland’s MARC commuter trains and commercial rail traffic that moves through the Northeast Corridor.

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Trains crawl through the tunnel between Baltimore’s Penn Station and points south, creating delays up and down the corridor. It’s the biggest chokepoint between Washington and New Jersey, and the Federal Railroad Administration has declared the tunnel structurally deficient and unable to meet projected demands.

Amtrak plans to replace the Reconstruction-era tunnel with single-track twin tunnels that would arc about a half-mile north of the existing tunnel. Trains would travel up to 100 mph. The railroad is completing the design and negotiating property acquisitions, while promising the tunnel — to be named after Maryland native and abolitionist Frederick Douglass — will carry electric-powered trains to reduce environmental impacts on Baltimore neighborhoods along the new route.

“By replacing the B&P tunnel with the Frederick Douglass Tunnel, we can make substantial and meaningful time savings,” Bose said.

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He also pointed to replacing the Portal North Bridge, over the Hackensack River in New Jersey, as a much-needed improvement. That project was previously funded.

“It’s not a fixed-span bridge. It’s a movable bridge and sometimes gets stuck. It causes trains not to cross the bridge,” Bose said, adding that fixing it will slice delays and upgrade riders’ experience.

The precise breakdown of how the $9 billion is likely to be divided among the entries on the Transportation Department’s “Major Backlog Projects” list will depend on its evaluation of individual applications filed with the agency over coming months, federal officials said.

“It’s hard to say right now what the funding will be, but [the projects] are eligible for up to 80 percent of the total project cost,” Bose said. The rest, he noted, would need to come from nonfederal sources.