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Speaking of infrastructure

Joe Nathan BigFrom the halls of Congress to City Hall we keep hearing about the need to invest in infrastructure.  Indeed, throughout the 2016 election campaign — and to the present – it seems that investment in infrastructure, at least in concept, is one issue that can bridge this nation’s partisan divide.

We receive reminders of the fragile nature of our roads, bridges, railways and tunnels on a weekly, if not a daily, basis. Some recent examples:

  • In Atlanta, a section of Interstate 85 collapsed last month when material stored under the highway was set ablaze, allegedly by one or more squatters under the structure. The resulting break in the roadway threw the Atlanta region’s traffic into gridlock, while repairs might take until June to complete. Many commuters discovered utility on the region’s MARTA rail system.
  • In early April, New York’s Penn Station suffered its second train derailment in less than two weeks. A New Jersey Transit train went off track, causing multiple injuries and additional train delays throughout the region’s rail network. That incident had been preceded by an Amtrak slow speed derailment at Penn Station. Both incidents were traced to track defects, signs of the aging infrastructure at the nation’s busiest rail station.
  • Closer to home, the problems of the Metro system serving the nation’s capital are made plain to Washington area commuters daily. To address safety issues, including electrical fires and collisions, due to deferred maintenance over the years, the Metrorail system has instituted its SafeTrack program that requires portions of the system to be taken out of service on a rotating basis.

Larger issues

The problems with aging tracks at Penn Station recall the even larger issue of the need to deal with the aging rail tunnels that now transverse the Hudson River. The proposed Gateway Tunnel project would enable Amtrak to replace the existing 106-year old tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey, which had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Once the new tunnels were in service, the older ones could be repaired, providing added capacity. The federal government had agreed to pay half of the multi-billion-dollar project. But, that was before the November election.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump had made clear his interest in advancing infrastructure improvements. As reported by Time magazine, the president-elect stated, “America is suffering from a massive infrastructure deficit – crumbling and dilapidated roads, bridges, airports and tunnels. We need members of both parties – partnering with industry and workers – to join together to repair, rebuild and renew the infrastructure of the United States.”

Taking the president at his word, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh shared her ideas for strategic investments for a city just 40 miles up the road from the White House with the president-elect during his visit to Baltimore for the Army-Navy football game in December,

The mayor’s personally hand-delivered list included FASTLANE investments – discretionary federal funding for projects that address critical freight issues — for an I-95 interchange serving the Port Covington development and the Howard Street Rail Tunnel; improvements to the city’s century-old water and sewer systems; and expanded broadband infrastructure, including the utilization of the city’s recently installed fiber ring and “connecting every school to data centers and internet carrier hotels.”

Top priority

Asked to identify the Baltimore region’s highest priority infrastructure investment from the standpoint of economic development, Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, also highlighted the Howard Street Tunnel. “The one infrastructure project that has been in search of a solution for decades is the need to expand the Howard Street Tunnel to provide access to double stacking.”

Fry continued, “Recognizing that we are very close to having approval of that long-awaited project it would be hard not to list this as a top infrastructure project that would have strong economic benefits to the city, region, and state of Maryland.”

At the end of last year, the state of Maryland applied for a federal grant of $155 million for the expansion of the Howard Street Tunnel. The overall project is estimated to cost $455 million and to take four to five years to be completed,

While seen as critical to this region’s advancement, the Howard Street Tunnel is just one item in a growing wish list of infrastructure needs across the nation. Is it likely that we will ever see the $1 trillion infrastructure initiative mentioned during the presidential campaign? (Or, the $550 billion proposal, as modified during the transition?)

For beleaguered road and rail commuters, for those who want to extend broadband services to all schools and the remote reaches of rural America, for those who want safe drinking water, I hope the answer is yes. With lack of a consensus of how to pay for these desired improvements, Congress is more likely to do what it has done in the past: Kick the can down the road.


Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He writes a monthly column for The Daily Record and can be contacted at [email protected].

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