March 28, 2023

BALTIMORE — President Biden still remembers walking along the tracks of the Civil War-era rail tunnel here that connects Philadelphia to Washington as a senator and questioning the state of this piece of American infrastructure.

“You wonder how the hell it’s still standing,” Mr. Biden recalled thinking.

Mr. Biden returned to the tunnel on Monday not just to inspect the aging structure — but with plans to revive it. He said his administration is committing more than $4 billion from his $1 trillion infrastructure plan to repair an underground pathway first developed under President Ulysses S. Grant.

“The structure is deteriorating. The roof was leaking. The floor is sinking,” Mr. Biden said in a speech in front of the tunnel, the oldest in the Northeast, where the crowd included dozens of union workers. “This is the United States of America, for God’s sake. We know better than that.”

The day trip to Baltimore was part of an effort by Mr. Biden to focus on his biggest legislative accomplishments of the past two years, at a time when the new Republican House majority has vowed to block his agenda for the remainder of his term.

On Monday, Mr. Biden emphasized the impact of his infrastructure law on daily lives, through the creation of union jobs and a tunnel renovation for a faster morning commute.

The challenge of passing new legislation over the next two years makes it even more essential for the president to sell his accomplishments to voters ahead of the State of the Union and an expected announcement that he will run for re-election.

Mr. Biden will travel to New York City on Tuesday to celebrate investments for another tunnel under the Hudson River before delivering a speech on his economic agenda in Philadelphia on Friday. And he started the year by celebrating the bipartisan collaboration that will lead to a new bridge in Kentucky alongside Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader from Kentucky who has long promised to oppose Mr. Biden’s agenda.

“It’s not going to be the kind of productive couple of years he’s had before,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser for President Barack Obama. “So concentrating on reaping the harvest of what he’s done makes sense.”

But traveling the nation and previewing announcements may not be enough. The White House must also convince voters that the legislation will eventually translate into jobs, roads, bridges and tunnels that they can see and feel — even if some of the projects may take years to complete. Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said last month that the United States appears to be suffering from a “structural labor shortage,” meaning there is a lack of workers to build the infrastructure projects.

“There’s a difference between passing these landmark bills and seeing them reach fruition,” Mr. Axelrod said. “There’s a difference between saying we’ve done this and it makes a difference and cutting a ribbon at a tunnel or a road.”


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Mr. Biden also used the event in Baltimore to show his support for labor, saying that an agreement between Amtrak and local unions would ensure union members will be responsible for the construction of the renovated rail line. The 1.4-mile tunnel that runs under residential Baltimore will be named after Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave in Maryland before escaping north and becoming a renowned abolitionist.

“When we say that we need to modernize our infrastructure, this tunnel is Exhibit A,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. “It causes huge, constant and persistent delays in our system.”

In traveling to Baltimore on Monday, Mr. Biden focused on a bottleneck he knows well.

As a U.S. senator, Mr. Biden took the Amtrak from Delaware to Washington for decades, earning the moniker “Amtrak Joe.” He told stories on Monday of riding on the train with engineers and hosting parties for conductors.

“The person who knows this is Joe Biden because he’s been stuck in this tunnel many times as a passenger of Amtrak,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland.

Amtrak trains approaching the tunnel must slow to 30 miles per hour, creating chronic delays. More than 10 percent of weekday trains are delayed, and the slowdowns occur on 99 percent of weekdays, according to the White House. The new tunnel will have two tubes, softer curves and a new signaling system. The construction will also include new surrounding roadways and railroad bridges.

The renovations for the Baltimore project will cost about $6 billion, and a senior White House official said the $4 billion that Mr. Biden committed on Monday would likely be awarded by the end of the year. Maryland has committed $450 million for the tunnel system.

The administration has not yet issued contracts for the development, making the timing of its completion unclear. It is expected to take years.

Beth Osborne, the director of the transportation advocacy group Transportation for America, said the projects that the administration is promoting are important, but she warned of a shortage of workers in all transportation industries.

“We create a labor force to support work that we know will happen regularly, like highways, but not for these once-in-a-lifetime projects,” she said. “This is going to take some work.”

“One of the big problems of course is we haven’t really invested in rail projects, period, in this country,” she added.

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