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New Penn Station tunnel, BWI rail stop get federal boost

(The following story by Michael Dresser appeared on the Baltimore Sun website on January 29, 2010.)

BALTIMORE, Md. — Two high-priority Maryland projects, including the replacement of a deteriorating tunnel that carries Amtrak trains through Baltimore, will receive $70 million in funding as part of $8 billion in rail investments announced Thursday by the Obama administration.

The money, part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus program, is intended to foster development of high-speed rail in the United States, which for decades has lagged behind European and Asian nations.

The biggest beneficiaries of the distribution of funds were California and Florida, where Obama made appearances to promote his signature transportation initiative. Florida was awarded more than $1.1 billion for construction of a high-speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa by 2014, while California is slated to receive $2.3 billion toward an ambitious plan to link Anaheim and Los Angeles with San Francisco by about 2020 at a cost of more than $40 billion.

The money awarded to Maryland doesn't approach that scale, but it goes toward the two projects at the top of the O'Malley administration's wish list: the tunnel replacement and a new train station at Baltimore- Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

"We were a big winner. That certainly speaks to the importance of the projects," said Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley.

The state will receive about $60 million toward engineering and preparation of environmental impact statements for replacing the 1870s-vintage Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, just west of Penn Station on the way to Washington along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Replacement of the tunnel, a significant bottleneck for Amtrak and MARC Penn Line trains as they pass through Baltimore, is expected to eventually cost on the order of $1 billion. The tunnel is also used by Norfolk Southern freight trains.

Receiving $10 million is a project to replace the Amtrak station and add a new platform at BWI.

The money also will be used for engineering and preparing environmental statements - necessary steps before construction on the $80 million to $100 million project can begin.

As part of that project, the state will add a fourth track and build a middle platform so all tracks can be used for getting on and off. Currently only two of the three tracks can be used for that purpose.

Swaim-Staley noted that the BWI station has "minimal" space for ticket sales, waiting area and food service. She said all three would be expanded as part of the station replacement. If there are no delays, she said, that project could be completed in about five years.

The bulk of the spending announced Thursday goes to locations outside Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, which extends from Boston to Washington.

Of the $112 million allocated to the corridor, Maryland's $70 million share is the largest.

Gov. Martin O'Malley released a statement praising the Obama administration's decision and linking the projects to the state's long-range plan to expand MARC commuter service.

"The replacement of the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel in Baltimore and the upgrade of the BWI MARC/Amtrak Station are critical components of our MARC Growth and Investment Plan," O'Malley said. "Both will increase our ability to move people more efficiently by rail and reduce our dependence on the automobile. This funding allows us to complete the engineering and environmental work necessary to get these vital projects ready for construction."

The tunnel has been a longtime priority for Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who helped obtain authorization for the project in a 2008 bill. In a statement Thursday, Cummings welcomed the administration's announcement.

"This Civil War-era tunnel ... has essentially reached the end of its useful life," Cummings said in the release, quoting from a letter he wrote to the Federal Railroad Administration supporting the state's application for the money. "Its antiquated design forces trains to travel no more than 30 miles per hour through the structure and its height limitations do not allow the use of taller galley cars. Replacement of this structure with a modern tunnel is essential to providing the safe accommodations necessary to improve Amtrak service on the Northeast Corridor, including reducing travel times between Washington, D.C., and points north."

The tunnel project, however, is vastly more complex than the station. Swaim-Staley said that project could take 10 years to complete.

Like many states, Maryland applied for funding of many more projects than it expected to be funded. The state made $360 million in requests for seven projects. Only the top two made the cut.

Unlike many of the earlier stimulus projects in Maryland, the most recent awards won't do much for employment in the construction industry. They could, however, bring much-needed opportunities to the state's engineering, design and environmental planning industries. Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan said that so far there are no estimates of potential employment on the two projects.

It could take some time before the money actually begins to flow to state contractors. Before that can happen, Maryland has to negotiate a detailed agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration. From that point the state would have three years to use the money.

Amtrak was not eligible to apply for the stimulus grants, though states were able to submit proposals for improvements to Amtrak facilities.

Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said that largely reflected a desire by Congress to promote high-speed rail in parts of the country that hadn't seen much in the way of such investment.

"There's a lot of other states out there that need this service," Capon said.

Besides California and Florida, some of the biggest winners in the high-speed rail derby were in the Midwest. The government allocated $1.1 billion for improvements expected to allow rail traffic between Chicago and St. Louis to reach speeds as high as 110 mph. Another $810 million would go toward improving the 80-mile stretch of track between Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., slated for completion by 2013.

The emphasis on regions outside the busy Northeast drew criticism from a leading House Republican.

"I am disappointed that the Northeast Corridor, our nation's most congested transportation region, was thrown overboard by the Obama administration in the high-speed rail route selection process," said Rep. John L. Mica of Florida, ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He said Amtrak has "hijacked" hopes of improvements by failing to support private-sector initiatives in the corridor.

Friday, January 29, 2010

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