An Amtrak station in Stamford, Connecticut.

An Amtrak station in Stamford, Connecticut. John Moore/Getty Images

Feds open the door to $2B in Northeast Corridor rail improvements

The grant applications come as President Joe Biden, a longtime railroad fan, wraps up his first term and Amtrak ridership rapidly rebounds from pandemic-era lows.

The Biden administration is looking for proposals on how best to spend another $2 billion to upgrade the country’s busiest passenger rail corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

The Federal Railroad Administration issued a notice of funding opportunity Tuesday to solicit those proposals. The money would come from President Joe Biden’s signature 2021 infrastructure law and, depending on the outcome of November’s election, could be one of the last opportunities for the Biden White House to shape the future of the Northeast Corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington, D.C.

“The president’s investments in rail will be felt by generations to come, beginning with immediate benefits to communities and continuing to ensure essential rail corridors like the Northeast Corridor are modern, safe and convenient, giving Americans access to world-class passenger service,” said FRA Administrator Amit Bose in a statement.

Bose said the special application for projects on the Northeast Corridor—as laid out in the infrastructure law—would help the agency with “streamlining the process for much-needed funding based on demand.”

The menu of potential projects that could receive money include station upgrades for Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. There are dozens of other infrastructure improvements in need of funding as well, including replacing century-old bridges over rivers, laying new track to better connect nearby lines, replacing overhead electric wires, upgrading signals or building flyovers to avoid delays where different rail lines meet.

The latest round of funding for the Northeast Corridor comes after the administration announced an “unprecedented” package of improvements for the Amtrak-owned route in November. The Biden administration has already committed $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.

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.

A coalition of states, commuter agencies, Amtrak and the U.S. Department of Transportation released a plan last November laying out a 15-year proposal for modernizing the Northeast Corridor. The price tag for that plan would be $135 billion in 2023 dollars. The group, called Connect NEC, anticipated that a third of that money would come from states that provide Amtrak services. Most of the rest, the group said, would need to come from various federal programs.

“Most operators are planning a significant increase in overall service in the next 15 years, straining the capacity of the NEC in certain regions even when future infrastructure investments are taken into account,” the group noted in its report.

Amtrak has seen a recent increase in ridership, delivering 28 million trips during the federal government’s fiscal year that ended in September. That’s a 24% increase from the year before, but still short of the 32 million passengers it served in 2019.

Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

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