A bottleneck in the most heavily trafficked passenger rail corridor in the United States. An archaic freight tunnel that’s just a little too small for the Port of Baltimore’s growing cargo demands. A 47-year-old bridge toppled by a nearly 1,000-foot cargo ship.

Baltimore’s infrastructure had plenty of big needs — totaling billions of dollars — even before the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed a week ago.

The Dali, a massive container ship from Singapore, still sits in the wreckage and collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the Baltimore port on April 1, 2024. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Aging and outmoded infrastructure, from rutted roads to century-old water mains, has long been an Achilles’ heel for Baltimore. But with the Biden administration and Democrats trying to make the case that they can rebuild the country’s scaffolding, Baltimore’s vulnerabilities may become an opportunity.

With billions already earmarked, Baltimore could become a proving ground — and maybe a blueprint — for their infrastructure goals.

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Since the passage of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a top Biden achievement, Baltimore and Maryland are benefiting from billions in competitive grants. Current high-profile projects include Amtrak’s new Frederick Douglass Tunnel and the reborn Red Line.

Replacing the Key Bridge has joined the list. Hours after the collapse, President Joe Biden pledged a blank check to rebuild and plans to visit the site on Friday.

“One reason you see so much funding headed to Maryland and to Baltimore is because you have so much important infrastructure in Maryland and Baltimore,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in an interview with The Baltimore Banner. “There are specific pieces of infrastructure that matter not just to that specific region, but really to the whole country.”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg at a news conference in Dundalk on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Buttigieg told The Banner that his agency has awarded roughly $12 billion to nearly 200 different projects across Maryland through the infrastructure bill thus far. There are marquee investments like nearly $5 billion to help Amtrak build its new tunnel under West Baltimore and smaller initiatives like $1.8 million for planning toward employing drones to make medical deliveries in remote Eastern Shore communities.

The majority of the total authorized funding pot — worth about $864 billion — will go to transportation projects across the country. Within that smaller pot exist hundreds of different programs like RAISE, Safe Streets For All and Reconnecting Communities that have made headlines in Baltimore in the past year.

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“I don’t think there’s a place in the country that has received as much support and as much benefit as Baltimore City,” said Matthew Garbark, director of the Mayor’s Office of Infrastructure Development. Just within West Baltimore and the immediate surrounding area, there’s at least $7 billion in federal infrastructure funding pouring in right now, Garbark estimated. “I have been unable to identify another place in the country that has received that much.”

In the last two years, federal infrastructure formulas have sent $80 million to Baltimore for transportation projects, according to figures provided by Garbark, while the city has applied for nearly $230 million in competitive infrastructure grants under the law and netted $124 million so far. That funding has sparked new initiatives like reimagining the “Highway to Nowhere,” and restarted stalled ones like making Druid Park Lake Drive safer for pedestrians.

Cars travel down U.S. Route 40 in Baltimore, Wednesday, March 8, 2023.
Cars travel down U.S. Route 40 in Baltimore — known as the Highway to Nowhere — on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

“On some federal programs, Maryland is getting more and on other federal programs, Maryland is getting less,” said Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute focusing on the intersection of land use and transportation. The Urban Institute tracks federal funding across a wide range of programs.

Maryland is falling behind when it comes to per capita federal funding through the National Highway Performance Program as well another large, general use funding stream flowing from the infrastructure bill, according to Freemark. But when it comes to certain competitive grants, Maryland is shining — Freemark pointed to a road safety program that gave nearly $10 million to Baltimore for its Complete Streets program and multiple other awards across the state.

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Maryland’s competitive edge could be merging need with aligned local and federal philosophies, said state Secretary of Transportation Paul Wiedefeld in an interview with The Baltimore Banner.

“Some of the initiatives that we have in place are very consistent with some of those funding opportunities, whether it’s Complete Streets, whether it’s [reconnecting] communities,” Wiedefeld said.

Two men stand in front of the Patapsco River, the remains of a bridge are seen in the distance. One of the men is speaking into a podium microphone.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld stands alongside Gov. Wes Moore and addresses the media in front of the fallen Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 30, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny)

Though Wiedefeld could not comment on how Maryland stacks up compared to other states for winning infrastructure dollars, he’s been pleased with the level of support Maryland has gotten. He credited his team for collaborating with local transportation departments to make applications as strong as possible, and praised those local departments for having clear goals and plans.

When it comes to bridges, Maryland sits in the middle of the pack for infrastructure law dollars, Freemark noted.

Within the 2021 funding frenzy is $40 billion for the replacement and rehabilitation of bridges — that includes $12.3 billion up for grabs in competitive grants. Wiedefeld’s team submitted a grant for the rehabilitation of the American Legion Bridge, the centerpiece of a stalled project frustrating commuters around Washington, D.C.

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In an emailed statement, an MDOT spokesperson said the agency, “will continue to aggressively compete to secure federal discretionary grant funding to advance safety and state-of-good-repair needs across our State.”

When assessing the impact of these investments, Joseph Kane, a fellow at the think tank Brookings Metro, said it’s more important to focus on outcomes than it is on counting dollars and cents. Though Maryland could be receiving more money than a peer state, the focus should be on projects getting delivered and how transformative they are, he said.

American infrastructure needs aren’t what they once were in the 1950s, Kane observed. For the most part, the United States isn’t building huge new bridges or highways anymore. Today, we’re in an “era of repair,” where many of the country’s most pressing jobs are in maintaining what’s already there.

Still, Freemark, the Urban Institute researcher, stressed that when it comes to the rebuilding the Key Bridge, officials should be looking for ways to deliver something better than what was there before, whether that’s in its design, safety measures or connections to surrounding communities.

Garbark, the city’s infrastructure director, said that from Mayor Brandon Scott to Gov. Wes Moore all the way to Biden, whose hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, is a short ride up the Amtrak line, there’s an alignment of elected leaders who seem to have a particular appreciation for Baltimore’s needs. The city’s proximity to Washington, D.C., likely has something to do with the attention it has received from national leaders, he noted, but he also said the Biden administration has made clear that they want to prioritize investments in low-income and historically disinvested communities like Baltimore’s.

”I get the feeling that Baltimore is something that they’re really interested in,” he said. “It is really a good example of what can happen if the federal government invests in cities.”