Sen. Barbara Mikulski

Sen. Barbara Mikulski speaks about long-term transportation funding and the B&P tunnel at a news conference in Baltimore's Penn Station as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake looks on. (Rachel Woolf, Baltimore Sun / August 11, 2014)

Two Maryland lawmakers joined Amtrak and Obama administration officials at Penn Station on Monday morning to call for long-term federal funding of transportation projects — pointing to Baltimore's 141-year-old passenger rail tunnel as a prime example of the need.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, both Democrats, said Congress needs to get beyond its recent habit of enacting short-term extensions of federal transportation funding and pass legislation providing a predicable flow of money for long-term, big-ticket projects.

They were joined at the news conference in the newly renovated station by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr.

The officials called for passage of the Obama administration's proposed $19 billion Grow America Act to speed the long-term rail projects such as the replacement of the 1.4-mile B&P Tunnel.

The two-track Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, built in 1873, snakes under the west side and creates a bottleneck on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Its curves force the roughly 135 trains passing through each day to slow to 30 mph.

The minor derailment of an Amtrak engine in the tunnel last November closed it for hours and disrupted MARC commuters trains as well as travel along Amtrak's Washington-to-Boston corridor. There were no injuries and none of the train's cars derailed.

Amtrak officials say its deteriorating condition requires expensive maintenance and carries a risk of expensive service interruptions.

The administration sent its Grow America legislation to Congress in April, but no action is expected until the new Congress is seated in January. Even then, it faces a potentially skeptical reception from Republicans who by then could add control of the Senate to their dominance in the House.

That didn't deter Mikulski and Cummings from pushing for a long-term investment in rail.

"We need maglev [magnetic-levitation trains], but what we have is the B&P Tunnel. It is a major chokepoint on the Northeast Corridor," Mikulski told a news conference.

"We can no longer afford short-term solutions to long-term problems," Cummings said. "We're going against mighty forces in Washington."

Congress recently came to the brink of letting federal highway funding expire before passing a stopgap measure continuing funding through next May. Transportation officials say that's sufficient to continue projects such as repaving interstate highways but not to move forward on long-term mega-projects such as replacement of a large bridge or tunnel.

Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said that even though funding for an engineering study on replacement of the tunnel was approved by Congress in 2008, the money wasn't provided until 2011. She said the study didn't begin until last fall because of the project's complexity and the multiple players involved — city, state and federal agencies as well as Amtrak.

No money has been allocated yet for construction, which has been estimated at $1.5 billion.

Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the officials held the news conference at Penn Station to highlight the need of moving forward.

"This tunnel is a symbol of the aging infrastructure we have throughout the country," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com