Passenger rail gets ‘unprecedented’ $16B investment
The grants to replace aging infrastructure along the Northeast Corridor come as Republicans in Congress look to cut back funding for Amtrak.
The nation’s busiest passenger rail corridor will get several major upgrades in coming years, as the Biden administration announced Monday it would spend $16 billion to upgrade or replace a dozen bridges and tunnels all along the Northeast Corridor that are more than a century old.
The administration touted the package of improvements as “unprecedented.” It includes $3.8 billion more to build new tunnels under the Hudson River, $4.8 billion to replace a 150-year-old tunnel in Baltimore, $2 billion to replace a bridge in northeastern Maryland and more than $1.5 billion for bridge replacements in Connecticut. Also on the list are a major renovation of the Amtrak station in Baltimore, rehabilitation for tracks going under the East River in New York, and a study to improve service between New Haven, Conn., and Providence, R.I.
“Taken together, these investments will upgrade tunnels, bridges, tracks, power systems, signals, stations and more, allowing for increased speeds, reduced travel time, and a more reliable experience for riders,” the Federal Railroad Administration wrote in a release. “This means modernizing and strengthening a mode of transportation that produces fewer emissions compared to driving or flying.”
President Joe Biden, long known as “Amtrak Joe,” traveled to his home state of Delaware to tout the improvements, and to play up the second anniversary of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that contained funding for the grants.
“This line has tunnels and bridges that are over 100 years old. I know because I’ve walked through two of them,” Biden said. “There are train stations that haven’t seen a major upgrade for generations, tracks are in constant need of repair. Folks, it has real consequences. This outdated infrastructure leads to over 4,000 hours of delays each year on Amtrak.”
For example, the 150-year-old tunnel through Baltimore is the biggest bottleneck on the entire corridor. It leads to delays on 99% of days, and trains travel through it at 30 mph. The replacement tunnel would let them pass through at 110 mph, Biden said.
But the grants come at a crucial time for the administration. Conservative Republicans in the U.S. House, emboldened by the choice of U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana as the new speaker, are pushing for cuts to Amtrak and other Biden administration priorities. East Coast Republicans, though, have resisted efforts to cut back money for the day-to-day operations of the passenger rail service. That has delayed voting on a budget bill covering transportation and housing spending, one of a dozen that Johnson had hoped to pass as an alternative to those advanced by the Democratically controlled U.S. Senate.
The congressional fight over Amtrak’s day-to-day funding won’t directly impact the money for construction projects announced by the Biden administration. But scaling back the federal support for routine service—especially at a time when ridership on the Northeast Corridor has finally returned to pre-pandemic levels—could undercut the administration’s efforts to promote better passenger rail service.
The president slammed the conservative lawmakers for trying to pare Amtrak’s budget.
“MAGA Republican members of Congress are proposing to slash Amtrak’s budget for trying to make train travel easier, faster, safer, more reliable,” Biden said. “They’re trying to make it slower, harder and less safe. You can’t make this stuff up. But that’s OK. We’re not going to let them stop the progress we’re making.”
The 2021 infrastructure law set aside $36 billion for adding or improving passenger rail routes. At least $12 billion of that must be spent outside of the Northeast Corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington, D.C.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul joined Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu Friday to break ground on the new Hudson River tunnels for Amtrak, which will lead directly into New York City’s Penn Station. The Democratic governor pointed out that local officials and Amtrak have been working on a new crossing for more than 30 years.
“Years of inaction, excuses, delays and the infighting are finally over,” Hochul said. “No more talk: This is the day the shovels go in the ground.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat who has pushed for federal funding for the so-called Gateway Project for years, noted that the Biden administration has now pledged to cover more than 70% of the costs of the new tunnels, far higher than the 50% Schumer had originally hoped for. All told, the federal government is ponying up more than $11 billion for the project. “It’s unheard of,” Schumer said. “But I’m the majority leader. This is New York. We go big.”
(The New York delegation also celebrated a separate major infrastructure grant award over the weekend, as the Federal Transit Administration announced it would spend $3.4 billion toward the expansion of the Second Avenue Subway into Harlem. Hochul said it was the FTA’s largest grant ever.)
In Connecticut, the state is putting up nearly $400 million in support of the 10 rail projects selected for the state. The FRA also provided a letter of intent to the state committing $2 billion for the future construction of a replacement for the Devon Bridge between Stamford and New Haven.
“The Northeast Corridor is the busiest rail line in the nation, and improvements here mean more jobs, continued economic growth and improved quality of life,” said Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, in a statement. “Many of our railroad bridges are more than 100 years old, and this major investment of funding ensures that trains can operate with higher speeds and fewer disruptions well into the future.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.