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With Hudson River tunnel stalled, Amtrak left at the station again — and that’s bad for Baltimore | COMMENTARY

In this May 25, 2017, file photo, a train moves through Penn Station in New York. The news that Amtrak is working with federal officials to do extensive repairs to its Hudson River rail tunnels while a plan to build a new tunnel languishes raises the specter of more delays for already beleaguered commuters.
In this May 25, 2017, file photo, a train moves through Penn Station in New York. The news that Amtrak is working with federal officials to do extensive repairs to its Hudson River rail tunnels while a plan to build a new tunnel languishes raises the specter of more delays for already beleaguered commuters. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Last Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao testified that the Trump administration will be moving forward with a repair of existing rail tunnels under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and New York, a project that is expected to cost $1.8 billion. It falls short of what New Yorkers really want, a new tunnel underneath the Hudson River that would cost $9.5 billion. The renovation will not only worsen delays in and out of New York as tunnels are closed for repair, but they will not add much-needed capacity. For both local and long-distance rail commuters in and around the Big Apple, this is a nightmare. Unfortunately, it also spells trouble for communities situated along the rest of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s most successful rail line. And that includes Baltimore, the Northeast’s fifth busiest station.

Let’s face it, Baltimore needs the economic boost of its passenger rail connection now more than ever. As much as futuristic plans, like 300-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation trains, are often touted for the Northeast, getting a fully-functioning Amtrak corridor would seem a more realistic, if elusive, goal. Bottlenecks abound (including our own Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel in West Baltimore), but none is more troublesome than the Hudson tunnels, which not only lack capacity but were damaged by Super Storm Sandy eight years ago.

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Several years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration released its 30-year-plan for the Northeast that anticipated $120 billion in upgrades, including a new double-tracked tunnel under the Hudson — about one-third of which was needed just to maintain existing service. That may sound like a lot of money, but in transportation terms, it’s practically a bargain given the financial and environmental cost of alternative highways and bridges or, if no investment is made, traffic congestion.

The FRA proposal envisioned the time it takes to ride an Amtrak Acela train from Baltimore to New York being reduced 35 minutes to 1 hour, 45 minutes. Those are precious minutes that can spell the difference between perceiving a Penn Station-to-Penn Station trip as a possible daily commute or a long-distance headache.

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Think it’s unrealistic to ponder daily commutes from Baltimore to major job centers, New York included? Then perhaps you haven’t fully experienced Mid-Atlantic traffic or have already forgotten the glory days of Baltimore finance when such firms as Alex. Brown, Legg Mason and T. Rowe Price relied on that connection. Earn a Wall Street wage while living in far more affordable Baltimore is a formula that still looks pretty inviting. But it can’t work if commuter rail is sluggish and unreliable. And, unfortunately, Amtrak is moving in that direction.

And that’s not really the fault of the rail passenger system or its new CEO, William J. Flynn (a onetime CSX executive and son of a freight rail engineer), given how it’s been slowly starved by Washington. People object to rail subsidies, but that’s how rail travel works around the globe. Think automobile travel isn’t taxpayer-subsidized? Air travel? Think again. The only difference is that their subsidies aren’t generally calculated on a per-passenger basis, but in trillions of dollars in asphalt and steel and, by the way, the cars themselves. That trains are the most energy-efficient mode of intercity transportation available and thus least contributing to climate change often gets lost in that conversation, too.

The crux of the problem isn’t the Federal Transit Administration’s rating on the Hudson River Tunnel or other “Gateway” projects around New York, it’s the lack of money set aside for all transportation spending. Indeed, Secretary Chao told Congress that she still expects a new tunnel to be built in seven to 10 years. President Donald Trump keeps promising major new infrastructure spending, but it never seems to happen. Indeed, the proposals both he and Democrats in Congress have offered to date are generally underwhelming. A few hundred billion more won’t address the nation’s myriad needs from broadband to drinking water supplies, let alone transportation. Not when resurfacing a four-lane highway costs $1.25 million a mile. Yet simply updating the federal gas tax from its current 18.4 cents per gallon (its 1993 level) to account for inflation would cover much of that bill.

It’s surely not realistic to expect a major tax increase to be on the table in an election year, but it’s certainly fair to point out that the U.S. infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes. The most recent American Society of Civil Engineers rates it a “D-plus.” As a certain Twitter user might offer: “Sad.” New York’s bridge and tunnel crowd will get a good taste of that as the estimated 450 trains that pass through existing tunnels face longer delays and more frequent disruptions. As for Baltimore? It’s just another lost opportunity as the cost of the city’s myriad social problems, much of them centered on a lack of economic opportunity, continue to add up.

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