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The golden ticket

Doesn't the nation's busiest passenger rail line deserve an upgrade?

Without much fanfare, the Federal Railroad Administration released its vision for upgrades to the Northeast Corridor recently, and its includes significant economic opportunities for Baltimore — if the federal government is willing to pay the price. But no passenger rail line in the nation is more deserving of taxpayer support.

First, the good news. The FRA's 30-year plan anticipates adding tracks (to a minimum of four throughout the line), increasing train speeds (for both Amtrak and commuter systems), eliminating bottlenecks and even adding service like direct connections to Philadelphia International Airport so passengers from Charm City don't have to change trains at 30th Street. Travel times between Washington and New York would drop 35 minutes to 2 hours and 10 minutes, which puts Baltimore to New York well under two hours.

Reducing the amount of time it takes to get from midtown Manhattan to downtown Baltimore to an hour and forty-five minutes or so could prove particularly advantageous. There are daily commuters living in the New York suburbs who already face similar delays on the highways; might they be attracted to the far-more-affordable lifestyle further south?

The investment may also prove a necessity no matter how you commute. As the study notes, the corridor is expected to grow by 7 million residents by 2040, and there are limited transportation options in the Northeast, a region that represents 30 percent of all the jobs in the U.S. and 20 percent of the gross domestic product. Amtrak ridership has already hit a historic peak — 11,689,167 passengers last year — with Baltimore the fifth most popular stop, with nearly 900,000 of those riders, and Baltimore-Washington International the eighth most popular beating out such major commuting venues as Newark and Trenton, N.J. and Boston's Back Bay.

But growth can't happen without sufficient investment. As the agency previously observed, the aging Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel through West Baltimore remains one of the more challenging roadblocks in the corridor. Replacing it is expected to cost $4 billion and would mean displacing about 22 homes, according to a recent environmental impact report.

And that is, of course, the rub. In all, the FRA estimates that the corridor needs $120 billion in upgrades, including $40 billion just to maintain current service. That's an enormous sum but not necessarily excessive when considered within the framework of a 30-year investment and the high cost of alternatives — road and bridge projects that can be far more expensive and have far worse environmental impacts. Merely resurfacing a four-lane highway costs $1.25 million per mile, and that doesn't count bridges that are far more costly to repair, so you're talking hundreds of millions of dollars without adding an extra inch of capacity.

Indeed, it's easy to lose sight — particularly during a Donald Trump administration — that the U.S. needs to burn less fossil fuel, and trains are the most energy-conserving form of intercity transportation available. But even setting aside climate change, the Northeast includes cities with serious air pollution problems including New York, Philadelphia and the Baltimore-Washington region. The last thing any of them needs is to worsen traffic congestion and thereby shorten the lives of local residents who must breathe polluted air.

Mr. Trump made considerable noise about greater investment in infrastructure during and after the campaign (although his tax credit-reliant plan is unlikely to get the job done). Upgrading the Northeast Corridor is a project that could stimulate the economy — creating an estimated 47,000 jobs each year, according to the FRA — and it's one that the Queens native can appreciate, given New York City's own rail bottleneck under the Hudson River.

Politicians like to have grand visions for 300-mile-per-hour magnetic levitating trains, and that day may yet come. But what the Federal Railroad Administration is looking for in the interim is something more practical — a better-functioning, less overwhelmed rail passenger system serving the nation's busiest corridor. The longer the nation waits to make that particular investment, the worse the problem is going to become and the more expensive to fix. Amtrak and the various commuter rail systems, including Maryland's own MARC, aren't sexy, technological wonders or even mildly futuristic, but they can work just fine for millions of people — if a President Trump and his GOP-controlled Congress can punch the $120 billion ticket.

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