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Everything Wrong with American Infrastructure in One Tunnel

Platform at Union Station in Washington, D.C., in 2015.

Today’s Wall Street Journal includes a story about the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel on the Northeast Corridor in Maryland between Baltimore Penn Station and Washington Union Station. The 1.4-mile-long tunnel was built from 1871 to 1873 and is in terrible shape, the Journal says:

It causes delays for more than 10% of weekday trains on the line, and modernizing it isn’t viable, railroad officials say. Persistent water leaks require regular track repairs, including $71 million in fixes last year. During winter, workers use poles to knock icicles off the tunnel ceiling so they don’t freeze up the electric lines that power trains.

A new replacement tunnel would be waterproof, ventilated, and have emergency escape walkways, all standard features on tunnels today, the Journal reports.

Trains can go only 30 miles per hour through the current tunnel, which greatly increases travel times for Maryland commuter trains going between Baltimore and Washington. A new, modern tunnel would allow trains to go up to 100 miles per hour. The Journal says that would allow commuter trains to go from Baltimore to Washington in under 30 minutes, a 15-minute improvement.

The tunnel’s biggest user is Amtrak, which runs about two-thirds of the 150 trains that use the tunnel every day. The tunnel slows rail traffic all the way up the East Coast, and Amtrak has wanted to replace it for years.

There’s a very strong case that the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel needs to be replaced. Since Amtrak is its biggest user, there’s even a very strong case that federal money should be used to replace it. It seems like something Maryland could work out with the federal government. Maryland transportation officials and Amtrak officials could outline the need for a new tunnel and give a ballpark estimate for cost and time frame to the legislature and the public. Maryland politicians, both in Annapolis and in Washington, could make the case to voters that the tunnel needs replacing. There could be a debate on how much the state should fund and how much the federal government should fund, how that money should be raised, and how much the project should cost in total — the sort of questions that elected legislatures are designed to answer.

Instead, Maryland and Amtrak have to hope that some crumbs from the bloated $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill end up in their hands.

Our infrastructure process is completely backward. Politicians start by specifying an amount of money to spend, then figure out which projects to spend it on. The process should start by specifying which projects are needed, then figuring out how much they cost. If we did things in the right order, we probably wouldn’t have a 148-year-old leaky tunnel clogging up traffic on the most-used rail corridor in the country.

If we made a nationwide list of tunnel projects in need of funding, the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel would be pretty high on the list. It’s the oldest tunnel on Amtrak’s network. Amtrak owns the tracks that run through it. It slows down trains on the highest-speed passenger-rail corridor in the Western Hemisphere. Transportation officials have known it to be a problem for years, and a replacement is decades overdue.

Instead, Congress started with the number it wanted to spend for the entire country, then split it up into a zillion categories (many of which have nothing to do with infrastructure at all), and then wants states to apply for funding. Amtrak and Maryland want $4 billion, only $2.7 billion of which would be used for the tunnel.

Which brings us to the other major problem with American infrastructure: cost, both in time and money. Amtrak thinks the project will take up to twelve years to complete. The current tunnel, which was built by a bunch of guys with pickaxes and dynamite in the 1870s, took two years to complete. And though it’s outdated now, it has lasted 148 years, so it’s not like they did a terrible job. Somehow, despite all the technological developments that have completely transformed our lives since the 1870s, it now takes six times longer to build its replacement.

And $2.7 billion for the new two-mile-long replacement tunnel comes out to $1.35 billion per mile. To put this in perspective, consider the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland. It opened in 2016 and cost about $12 billion. That’s a lot more than $2.7 billion, but the Gotthard Base Tunnel is the deepest tunnel in the world, bored through the Alps, and it’s 35 miles long. That comes out to a cost of $343 million per mile. So, for roughly a quarter of the cost per mile that it takes the United States to replace an existing tunnel that’s only a few dozen feet underground, the Swiss can build a completely new marvel of engineering through a mountain range.

By going through the infrastructure package, politicians have effectively bundled funding for the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel replacement with funding for every other major project in the country, plus all the other non-infrastructure measures in the package, from green-energy subsidies to web welfare. A bill to fund a replacement for the tunnel would probably pass pretty easily. A giant bill linked to an even larger bill that represents one party’s entire agenda for a legislative session is going to be more politically dramatic.

American infrastructure is not crumbling, and there’s no nationwide crisis or emergency demanding a massive federal response. There is, however, a 148-year-old rail tunnel in Maryland that needs replacing. Funding that project should not require assent to a national political agenda, but our backward infrastructure funding process means it does. And our money-first, projects-later mentality means we end up spending lots of money on not a lot of projects.

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