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Northeast Corridor gets $16 billion amid Amtrak fight

Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, Gateway Hudson River Tunnel Project among projects funded

 An Amtrak train pulls into Union Station in Washington on Friday, April 22, 2022.
An Amtrak train pulls into Union Station in Washington on Friday, April 22, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Biden administration announced $16.4 billion in funding for 25 passenger rail projects along Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor, with roughly half going to two major rail bottlenecks that President Joe Biden visited at the beginning of the year.

Biden plans to highlight the Amtrak funding Monday during a visit to New Castle County in Delaware.

The Transportation Department grants, allocated from a 2021 infrastructure law, come as House lawmakers had to delay votes on a fiscal 2024 spending bill for the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments over Amtrak funding. Some Republicans from states along the corridor, which runs from Washington to Boston, said they wouldn’t support the measure because of steep cuts to rail funding.

Among the projects awarded funding is the 150-year-old, 1.4-mile Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel that runs beneath west Baltimore that serves Amtrak, Maryland commuters and freight trains. It is set to receive $4.7 billion in a phased funding agreement. Its tight curves and steep incline force trains to slow to 30 miles per hour, making it the largest bottleneck between Washington and New Jersey. The updates are expected to significantly increase the speeds for trains using the passage, and it is to be renamed the Frederick Douglass Tunnel.

“Today’s Northeast Corridor is the product of investments that date back to the 1830s,” said White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu in a call with reporters, noting that many of its bridges and tunnels are more than 100 years old, and “are in desperate need of upgrades.”

The second-highest share of the cash will go to the Gateway Hudson River Tunnel Project aimed at easing congestion between New York and New Jersey. At $3.8 billion in phased funding, the sum bumps the Biden administration’s total funding commitments to the Gateway project up to $11 billion from a combination of sources, according to the White House. 

The current structure, in use for more than a century, suffered damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. 

Among the other projects, the Susquehanna River Rail Bridge Project in Maryland will receive $2.1 billion in phased funding. The 100-year-old rail bridge will receive new two-track spans that will allow speeds to increase from 90 to 125 mph, according to the administration. The upgrades will allow Amtrak, the Maryland Transit Administration’s MARC commuter rail system and Norfolk Southern Railway to use the bridge to transport passengers and freight.

The 2021 infrastructure law provided $22.4 billion in total from fiscal 2022 to 2026 to the Northeast Corridor Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grant Program. Biden administration officials said they intend to announce the remaining roughly $6 billion of the funds soon.

Rail fight

House Republicans from the Northeast temporarily derailed the chamber’s plan to proceed with the fiscal 2024 Transportation-HUD spending bill, which would slash 64 percent, or $1.6 billion, from Amtrak’s fiscal 2023 level.

East Coast lawmakers in both parties argue that Amtrak funding provided in the infrastructure law does not negate the need for healthy annual appropriations to the federally chartered rail corporation.

In an October letter they wrote that the decrease “cannot be ameliorated by advanced appropriations from the [infrastructure law]” since those funds are “limited to specific categories of capital investments.”

Other Republicans supportive of the Amtrak cuts counter that they are necessary to rein in federal spending.

“[The infrastructure law] was a huge increase above and beyond everything,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees DOT funding. “It wasn’t that [Amtrak] got a huge reduction, it’s that they got that additional big chunk of money.”

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans from outside the Northeast have been wary of federal rail policy over what they say is unfairness.

Republican senators led by Ted Cruz of Texas have sent multiple letters to the Biden administration accusing it of favoring the Northeast Corridor as it doles out cash from the infrastructure law. They’ve particularly been critical of cash for the Gateway Project.

“Given … the zero-sum nature of the grant funding available, every dollar awarded to one project is a dollar not awarded to others,” the Republican senators wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “This recent string of awards reflects what appears to be a troubling effort to prioritize the Gateway Program above deserving projects elsewhere in the country.”

The Senate’s Transportation-HUD appropriations bill, passed last week as part of a three-bill spending “minibus” would provide $2.5 billion for Amtrak — far above the House bill’s funding level of $876 million.

David Lerman contributed to this report.

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