President Joe Biden visited Baltimore Monday afternoon, celebrating the start of a multibillion-dollar project to replace an outdated train tunnel that is a frequent source of delays.

A large Acela train sounded its whistle as the president took the stage; American flag bunting hung from Howard Street Bridge. Biden thanked Mayor Brandon Scott, Gov. Wes Moore, and Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller, as well as a variety of other Maryland political figures for the invitation to the city.

The president’s love — and frequent use — of train travel is so well documented it earned him the nickname Amtrak Joe. “I’ve been through this tunnel a thousand times. When you talk about how badly the Baltimore tunnel needs an upgrade, you don’t need me to tell you that,” Biden said, the bores of the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel behind him.

Biden even made a move toward the Acela train as he took the stage: “Any time I see a train door open I head for it,” he joked to the crowd of about 100 people.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

At 150 years old, the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel is the oldest of its kind operated by Amtrak. It’s slated for replacement, which is funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law pushed through Congress by Democrats in November of 2021.

The nearly mile-and-a-half stretch connects Penn Station to Washington, D.C., and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, and it’s a notorious bottleneck; Amtrak says delays at the site are persistent. In total, the project will replace four miles of track.

According to the company, “more than 10% of weekday trains are delayed, and delays occur on 99% of weekdays.” Updates will include two new tubes, new bridges, rail systems, train tracks and a “new ADA-accessible West Baltimore MARC station.”

The project is estimated to cost a total of $6 billion. According to the White House, funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law could pay for $4.7 billion of that cost. The Maryland Department of Transportation has pledged $450 million toward the revitalization. Amtrak has pledged $750 million.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

An added benefit of the project, according to Biden, is more jobs.

“The Baltimore tunnel project will lead to 20,000 good paying construction jobs: laborers, electricians, carpenters, cement masons, ironworkers, operating engineers, and so much more,” Biden said. Biden said he often thought about those families and their dinner conversations as he rode through Maryland on his commutes home from Capitol Hill to Delaware.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“These are good jobs you can raise a family on and most don’t require a college degree.”

Referencing a line from Moore’s campaign, Biden — who stumped for the new governor in Montgomery County in August 2022 — said “I know we can forge a path of building an economy where no one’s left behind.” This project and other infrastructural projects like it are a way to invest in cities and the dignity of work.

Moore addressed the crowd shortly before Biden took the stage. “It’s been 150 years, and it is now time to bring the B&P tunnel into the 21st century,” he said.

Moore, too, spoke about the importance of these new jobs, “Construction on this tunnel alone will generate up to 30,000 jobs in the Baltimore region ... and we’re talking about good strong union jobs.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

He recalled speaking on the campaign trail of the different ways to create opportunities in the areas of “work, wages and wealth” for Marylanders. The new Frederick Douglass tunnel, he said, “will do all three. "

Moore also spoke on the significance of the tunnel’s new namesake, a figure who has played an integral role in Moore’s short tenure — Moore took his oath of office on Douglass’ Bible.

“We’re talking about an acknowledgment and a celebration of someone who believes that we don’t have time to do right, that the time to do right is now and the time to make this kind of investment is now,” he said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But some residents who live in the area near the tunnel are concerned about what the renovation will mean for their community.

Residents Against The Tunnels, a coalition of residents and business owners, have raised concerns about it for years, said Kathy Epple, a board member.

Amtrak, the company running the project, hasn’t been transparent on the effects of drilling, possible structural damage to older homes and buildings, and other environmental impacts since the announcement of new plans in summer 2021 for the project, Epple said.

Protestors outside of Penn Station protest against the tunnels President Biden came to pitch to the city, Baltimore, Md., on January 30, 2023.
Protestors outside of Penn Station opposing a new tunnel President Joe Biden was lauding in Baltimore Monday. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

”This would just be another example of an injustice done against West Baltimoreans by the government and sanctioned by the government,” said Keondra Prier, president of Reservoir Hill Association. “This is not anything new. This is part of the Baltimore’s legacy to continue and to enforce those injustices.”

Prier said Reservoir Hill, a primarily Black and residential neighborhood, will likely see air and noise pollution during and after the construction of the tunnels, with little guarantee that the community will benefit from public transportation or the creation of jobs.

She also questioned why nearby predominantly white neighborhoods, like Bolton Hill, will be spared.

”I commute on Amtrak, you know, I want the train to operate really well,” Prier said. ”Because of the lack of transparency and clarity and their unwillingness to share scientific documentation about what they know about our soil, our ground and our homes, it’s very hard for us to not question what their true goals are.”

Amtrak responded to questions about the group’s concerns by sending a link to the project’s website.

This is Biden’s third visit since taking office; he previously visited the Port of Baltimore and took part in a televised town hall at Center Stage.

Baltimore Banner journalists Clara Longo de Freitas and Kaitlin Newman contributed to this article.

This story has been updated to clarify that the Frederick Douglass Tunnel will replace the existing tunnel and to clarify the amount of money pledged by Amtrak. It has been updated to correct the year that President Joe Biden stumped for Gov. Wes Moore.

callan.tansillsuddath@thebaltimorebanner.com

Callan Tansill-Suddath covered the Maryland General Assembly for The Baltimore Banner. She previously covered the beat for WYPR 88.1, and Capital News Service, and reported on Montgomery and Prince George's Counties for WAMU/DCist. A native of Silver Spring, Callan holds a Master of Journalism degree from the University of Maryland. 

More From The Banner