Digging into Northeast neglect

How can the U.S. pay for its neglected railroad infrastructure?

It may have escaped the attention of Baltimoreans but things have gotten a little testy in the New York-New Jersey area in recent weeks over the state of century-old rail tunnels running under the Hudson River. The deteriorating condition of the tunnels is threatening Amtrak and other rail service, but how to pay for a $14 billion-plus replacement has proven a challenge.

Unfortunately, that's not just a problem for New York City but for Baltimore and other stops along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, the nation's most heavily traveled railway handling more than 750,000 passengers a day. The stations in Baltimore and at Baltimore-Washington International-Thurgood Marshall Airport are the 8th and 12th busiest in the nation, providing an important link to jobs and other economic opportunities from Washington to Boston.

Should one of the existing Hudson River tunnels be closed for repair, the consequences for the entire corridor — and perhaps for the nation's economy — would be significant. Yet Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie says it's up to the federal government to come up with most of the money (Mr. Cuomo has used the term, "lion's share") while federal Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has observed that the states haven't even stepped up with a proposal for a new tunnel, a necessary first step before funding can be contemplated.

Yet for all the back and forth jousting in and around the Big Apple, the Amtrak infrastructure problem is actually much larger than what lies underneath the Hudson River. As long as Mr. Foxx is looking at fixes, he needs to be looking for solutions for the entire Northeast Corridor, a project advocates say could cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $52 billion just to bring the system into good repair, let alone improve speeds.

Near the top of that list should be the 1.4-mile Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel in West Baltimore, a 142-year-old antiquity likely held together as much by the decades-old residue of burned fuel as its failing bricks and mortar. How fitting that it passes beneath Sandtown-Winchester, the economically impoverished community most affected by the Freddie Gray unrest last spring and as neglected as the railroad tunnel beneath it.

How much would it cost to replace the B&P? The federal government is currently looking at the options under a $60 million engineering study, but it's been pegged at $1.5 billion. Even that is small potatoes considering that, according to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the nation's total rail investment needs total more than $208 billion.

Clearly, it's time for Congress to intervene and come up with a revenue stream to finance these overdue capital improvements under the Hudson and beyond. But again, the problem is really bigger than that as Congress has failed to keep up with the nation's highway, bridge and transit construction needs as well, most recently kicking the can for a long-term transportation funding bill to Oct. 29.

Washington's political gridlock over this issue is maddening. The longer it takes Congress to address the nation's neglected infrastructure, the more costly that "fix" is going to be. And the Hudson tunnel problem is the perfect example of how it's pennywise but dollar foolish to delay if a shutdown of rail services cripples the country's financial center.

Just last week, a plan to raise the state gas tax by 12 cents per gallon advanced in the California legislature. Considering the Golden State already has one of the highest gas taxes in the nation, that's quite a contrast to what's happened in Washington where the 18.4-cent per gallon federal tax has been left unchanged for more than two decades. Yet if the country's most populous state (and home to about 1 out of 8 Americans) can pay for its share of transportation infrastructure, why can't the federal government hold up its end?

Make no mistake, the country needs a new tunnel under the Hudson River — just as it was needed five years ago when Mr. Christie unwisely canceled an earlier tunnel plan and raided the $3 billion fund set aside for it. But it's also just a small piece of the puzzle. It's not any governor or transportation secretary but Congress that ultimately needs to address this issue of failing and neglected transportation infrastructure. Whether the money comes from the gas pump or through corporate tax reform (as has been often discussed) is not nearly as important as launching these transportation rebuilding projects before it's too late.

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