Billions in rail grants let Biden hail his infrastructure wins
NEW YORK — President Joe Biden has spent months fending off public angst about supply chain woes, air travel meltdowns and a rail strike that could have sunk the economy.
Now he’s finally getting some good transportation news to talk about, with back-to-back appearancesnear rail lines in Baltimore and New York City.
They are among the first of what the White House hope will be a stream of infrastructure celebrations this year, each one allowing Biden — and Democratic rising star Pete Buttigieg, his Transportation secretary — to highlight the kind of concrete triumphs that voters love, while downplaying other bad news that has plagued the administration.
“For years, people talked about fixing this tunnel. With the bipartisan infrastructure law, though, we’re finally getting it done,”the pro-Amtrak president said Monday near a 150-year-old rail tunnel in Baltimore, where he hailed more than $6 billion in upgrades that will allow trains to travel through the city at up to 110 mph. Whistles from two Amtrak engines sounded off to mark the start of construction of a new tunnel, named after Frederick Douglass.
Biden and Buttigieg are following that Tuesday with an appearance on the west side of Manhattan, where they will announce a nearly $300 million grant for a long-debated rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Both announcements stem from the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure law that Biden signed his first year in office, and the New York money will aid a project that the Trump administration had pointedly blocked.
Beyond the benefits associated with the projects themselves, Biden aides have said they believe that they showcase his ability to strike deals across the aisle, in contrast with the partisanship on display in the new GOP-led House and the Republicans’ potential 2024 field.
White House aides also said Biden himself, long a lover of trains, has said he was delighted to partake in the unveiling of rail projects so close together. And he has never tired of joking about the failures of his predecessor’s so-called “infrastructure weeks” when Biden himself can tout a legislative milestone that will stand for decades.
“It lets people know that we're really getting things done,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a major backer of the project, in an interview with POLITICO. “It shows we can do big, important, necessary things when it comes to infrastructure.”
The New York rail funding will go toward the first phase of the Gateway Program, a series of projects aimed at supplementing the crumbling, century-old tunnels that carry freight and passenger rail under the Hudson. It will also replace a decrepit rail bridge in New Jersey.
The new tunnel — technically a pair of tunnels that can each carry a train — would reduce headaches facing commuters in and out of New York City and repair damage incurred during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Top transportation officials have warned that if the aging tunnel fails it could have catastrophic impacts for the regional economy.
Rep. Rob Menendez (D-N.J.), who represents the New Jersey side of the rail tunnel, said voters will begin to care about the new infrastructure investments when they start seeing tangible benefits to their commutes or travel times.
“Once people have access to an updated rail line and they see fewer delays, better facilities and better experiences, that will immediately crystallize what all this work will be about,” he said.
When Buttigieg visited Westfield, New Jersey in the summer of 2021 to promote what became the infrastructure law, Shelley Brindle, the mayor of Westfield, N.J., told him that delays and stressful commutes meant she was “never the mom I wanted to be.” Buttigieg has repeated her story during other infrastructure events.
And that’s the kind of impact the administration hopes will stick in voters’ minds — not cable news footage of passengers stranded at airports for days on end, or fears that a rail strike could provoke shortages of electricity and drinking water.
In Baltimore, Biden threw a bone to Buttigieg, who has faced weeks of Republican attacks for his handling of Southwest’s holiday debacle and a subsequent Federal Aviation Administration computer failure that snarled thousands of flights.
“This is just one example of the great work you’re doing, Pete, I appreciate it a lot,” Biden said Monday, referring to the Baltimore project.
Whether lawmakers will agree with that assessment remains to be seen.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who oversees airlines from her perch as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), who chairs the House Transportation Committee, are both expected to hold hearings on the airline industry as well as its FAA overseers.
In addition, their committees are actively working on a major aviation policy bill that is due to be finished by the end of September, which would be a natural vehicle to host any number of changes to the aviation system and DOT’s powers.
During his remarks in Baltimore, Biden sounded the alarm for infrastructure investment and underscored that his administration is delivering. He warned that an inoperable tunnel in Baltimore or New York would be disastrous for commuters and the economy.
“Over 2,200 trains run over this corridor every single day,” Biden said. “If this line shuts down, in just one day it would cost the country over $100 million.”
The new grant money Biden will announce Tuesday is earmarked for installing concrete casing on the far west side of Manhattan, which will allow the future rail tunnel to connect to New York Penn Station. Construction is expected to begin this year and cost $600 million.
Development of the tunnels still faces lingering hyperlocal obstacles, such as concerns about construction noise in one New Jersey town the tunnels will run beneath, along with competition for a key piece of land in Manhattan. If all goes as planned, work would begin in the fall of 2024.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat who represents many New Jersey commuters, said the project is now a done deal thanks to the infrastructure law, which includes money specifically for mega projects like Gateway.
“The good news is it’s full steam ahead. Now we just have to keep it on track,” Gottheimer said.
Biden also used Monday’s speech to praise labor unions, some of whose members have criticized the way he intervened to head off the potential freight rail strike last year. He declared that the Baltimore and New York-New Jersey projects are “all union work.”
Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, praised the administration’s insistence that big-ticket projects like the Gateway Tunnel and Baltimore rail tunnels be constructed with collective bargaining agreements between building trade unions and contractors.
“If you’re looking at what the administration’s done, there’s a clear focus on getting money out the door but getting money out the door in the right way,” said Regan.
Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.