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Delay not end of the line for Scranton-Hoboken passenger rail line

Last updated: February 01. 2014 10:39PM - 5913 Views
By - jsylvester@civitasmedia.com



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If passenger rail service connecting Scranton and Hoboken, N.J., were running today, football fans could have taken a train to the Super Bowl.
 
Sure, it would require a transfer to NJ Transit's Meadowlands station, but it would have eliminated the hassles of traffic and parking.
 
A proposal to build that connection — NJ Transit's Lackawanna Cutoff Line — has been discussed and partially funded for decades to connect the Electric City with New York City. And while politicians in Pennsylvania search for a way to fund the project, construction actually has moved forward in New Jersey, at least on part of a 28-mile missing segment of track.
 
If it's built, NJ Transit would operate service between Scranton and Hoboken. From there, commuters could take PATH trains into Lower Manhattan or Midtown. Commuters also would have the option of connecting to other NJ Transit trains at Secaucus Junction to arrive at New York's Penn Station.
 
Travelers in Scranton would board at the already planned intermodal center near The Mall at Steamtown.
 
N.J. does its part
 
Across the Delaware River, NJ Transit is laying a 7.3-mile section of track from Port Morris to Andover along what will be known as the Lackawanna Cutoff Line. It takes its name from a 28-mile section of track that was removed after eventual owner Conrail went out of business and abandoned the right of way in the 1970s.
 
The Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad laid the line from Roxbury, N.J., to just over the Delaware River in the early 20th century to create a faster route between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
 
New Jersey has agreed to pay $37 million to rebuild that 7.3-mile section, NJ Transit spokesman John Durso said.
 
“As of this point, New Jersey Transit has secured funding to fund the extension to Andover,” Durso said. “Funding has not been identified for beyond the initial Port Morris to Andover.”
 
He said about half of the 7.3-mile section is completed, but NJ Transit still is going through the permitting process with New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection related to the latter part, from Lake Lackawanna to Andover.
 
The spokesman added, “NJ Transit is unequivocally committed to constructing this connection to Andover. This is a critical project.”
 
But plans in Pennsylvania have not left the station. Here, there has been little advancement in the more than two decades the project has been discussed.
 
“It hasn't advanced hardly at all,” said U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, who's been huddling with other leaders over the plan. “On the New Jersey side, there's been steady progress. This is all about jobs. Our unemployment rate in Northeastern Pennsylvania is always way higher than the national average.”
 
One of the reasons for that, the congressman said, is the region is off the beaten path.
 
“I see restoring passenger rail service to Northeast Pennsylvania as one of the pieces of the puzzle,” he said, noting those other pieces include “building up the infrastructure that we have pretty much abandoned over the past four or five years.”
 
Detour to N.Y.
 
Plains Township resident Morgyn King, 17, said she would take a train when she visits New York, if one were available.
 
“I usually take the Martz bus,” Morgyn said. “My mom goes just about every other weekend” to visit and shop.
 
Connecting to New York City via Hoboken or Secaucus Junction wasn't part of the original plan.
 
The Lackawanna Cutoff Line was supposed to take advantage of a new trans-Hudson River tunnel connecting trains to Midtown. In 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed that project, citing cost overruns of $2.3 billion to $5.3 billion beyond the original $8.7 billion project estimate.
 
Commuters in the Poconos who commute from Metro-North Railroad's station in Port Jervis — just over the Pennsylvania line — also would have benefited from one-seat service to Manhattan had the new tunnel been built.
 
Instead, those commuters have the same options Scranton commuters would face: connecting to a second train to get into the city.
 
Cartwright believes passengers could be riding the rails from Scranton to Hoboken and the Big Apple within the next decade, if only Pennsylvania's state government would get in the game.
 
He believes it's important for the region's economic future, even though it would cost more than the $551 million estimated in a 2006 NJ Transit study. That estimate doesn't include property acquisition costs.
 
“Not a week goes by I don't work on it,” said Cartwright, D-Moosic, who represents Pennsylvania's 17th Congressional District, which includes Scranton and Wilkes-Barre.
 
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, agrees it would be great to have the rail service.
 
“People have been working on this for many years, but it's quite expensive,” Barletta cautioned. “Without any earmarks, which don't exist in Washington today, it would be difficult to secure funding.”
 
The Republican lawmaker said it would cost an estimated $20 million to $30 million annually to operate the line. He noted the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant program was increased by $100 million to $600 million this year, but that is for the entire country.
 
“It's very expensive,” Barletta said the proposed rail line. “It's not that it's not a good concept.”
 
The Lackawanna Cutoff Line is separate from a proposal to connect Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton by rail.
 
$551M and growing
 
The $551 million cost cited in NJ Transit's 2006 federally funded study was for the project in both states. That cost, expected to be more, would include train stations in Coolbaugh Township, Tobyhanna, Analomink, East Stroudsburg and Delaware Water Gap, in addition to the construction of stations in Blairstown and Andover in New Jersey.
 
Both states already contributed to the purchase of the railroad bridge over the Delaware Water Gap and the 28 miles of the Lackawanna Cutoff for $21 million, according to Lawrence C. Malski, president of the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority.
 
Cartwright said the passenger rail line would take pressure off of Interstate 80, which funnels a lot of commuters and commerce between Pennsylvania and New York City. But the interstate is getting more congested, and it's only going to get worse, the congressman said.
 
“I usually drive and I hate it,” said Dory Marino, owner of Shambala gift shop in Midtown Village in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
 
She usually drives into Manhattan or parks her car in New Jersey and takes a ferry into the city. If she had another way to get there, other than the bus, she would take it, she said.
 
Panama Canal connection
 
Incredibly, the Panama Canal plays a role in an effort to bring passenger rail to Northeastern Pennsylvania. A project underway to widen and deepen the canal will increase container ship traffic.
 
The Port of New York and New Jersey, the largest port on the East Coast and the third-largest container port in the nation, already had invested $2.3 billion for a project to deepen its harbor to 50 feet by dredging sediment from the channel bottom.
 
It also is raising the Bayonne Bridge, which connects New York and New Jersey, 64 feet at a cost of $1 billion, to accommodate the larger vessels.
 
That cargo has to go somewhere, and I-80 is a key corridor for moving product away from the port.
 
Cartwright said a passenger train would take cars off the road, and he also favors rebuilding freight train service, which would decrease truck traffic.
 
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said his father, the late former Gov. Robert P. Casey, who served as Pennsylvania governor from 1987 to 1994, took action toward the end of his time in office to prevent Conrail track from being torn up.
 
Which is why the track from Scranton to the Delaware Water Cap remains intact and it still used for freight traffic. Steamtown trains also use part of the line for tours.
 
If the plan to offer passenger service ever gathers steam, Pennsylvania will have to upgrade the track and signal system and build several train stations where passengers could hop on board.
 
Hence the expense.
 
“We have over a number of years been able to provide more help directly,” said Casey, who was re-elected in 2012 to his second six-year term in the Senate. “In my first couple years, it was easier to get money.”
 
A financial non-starter
 
Now, there is additional difficulty.
 
“It's very difficult to get dollars for anything, No. 1, and No. 2, this has been in front of people in our area for 20 years,” Casey said.
 
But he has talked with Cartwright about the project's importance.
 
Cartwright cites a lack of cooperation from the administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett as the main obstruction to the local rail project.
 
But Steve Chizmar, a spokesman in the governor's office, responded, “It's flat out not fair to put this at the feet of Gov. Corbett.”
 
Chizmar pointed to the transportation bill that Corbett signed to pump more than $2 billion into projects to fix and maintain roads, bridges and existing transit systems.
 
“We're focused on maintaining and repairing our existing infrastructure and making those expansions in infrastructure,” he said. “The money is not there to support” the Lackawanna Cutoff project.
 
Both Chizmar and Erin Waters-Trasatt, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation, said Pennsylvania applied under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's high speed rail component for $401 million in funding for the project in 2009 — when Democrat Ed Rendell was governor — but was denied any funds.
 
Waters-Trasatt said if the passenger rail line became a reality, state and local governments would have to continue to fund the operating costs of the rail line.
 
“We have some long-deferred needs,” she said in defense of the Corbett administration.
 
But Cartwright touts the economic advantages of a passenger rail line. He has been working with the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, which owns the regional rail assets and works with the Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad Co. Inc. to market the region and its industries, in his bid to move the project forward.
 
“New Jersey has been diligent about pursuing the project, whether or not Pennsylvania wants to get involved,” Cartwright said. “New Jersey wants to rebuild those tracks for its citizens.”
 
A tale of two states
 
The project would require not only federal funds, but funding from both states. That would include subsidies to keep the rail line running, because it would not survive on ticket sales alone, said Pennsylvania state Sen. John Blake.
 
“I don't think any transit system exists without subsidy,” Blake said.
 
But he said it's important for the economy, a sentiment echoed by fellow state Sen. John Yudichak.
 
“The proposed passenger line from our region to New York City would uniquely position Northeastern Pennsylvania to attract new business development and provide much-needed relief to more than 20,000 commuters who travel a very congested Interstate 80 every day,” Yudichak said.
 
Cartwright argues the region would have the population to support train service to New York City and points in between. He cites Portland, Maine, population 65,000, which started train service to Boston about 10 years ago. Now, Amtrak runs five trains a day between the two cities. Scranton has a population of about 75,000, and that does not include the nearly 600,000 people in surround suburbs and counties, which, Cartwright said, surely would support train service to New York City.
 
“What we're talking about is Northeast P.A. connecting to 12 million people,” the congressman said.
 
One of those 12 million, Pascal Archer, principal clarinet for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, lives in New York City but travels to Scranton for a couple of days once a month to rehearse and perform. He usually carpools or rents a car to get here. Once he took a bus and it cost him $100 round trip, he said. He would love to take a commuter train, if one traveled between Scranton and New York City.
 
Archer said a train would save him the trouble of looking for rides. As long as riding the rails was not expensive.
 
“I think the trains would have to be less than $50 round trip,” he said. “One reason people don't want to come to New York is because of the traffic. Penn Station is very close to the theater district, just a few blocks.”
 
How a passenger train service would affect buses that ferry commuters to and from New York City is an unknown. Several calls to Martz Trailways for comment were not returned.
 
Cartwright said a train would be quicker and wouldn't have to sit in traffic. He said the train ride would run 2 hours and 50 minutes with four stops.
 
And that train service could become a reality within 10 years with the help of federal and state funding, he believes.
 
To try to move it along, the congressman has been meeting regularly with Sens. Blake, D-Archbald, and Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, and met recently with Democratic state Reps. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, Frank Farina, who represents parts of Lackawanna and Wayne counties, and Marty Flynn, whose district includes Scranton and nearby parts of Lackawanna County.
 
“A lot of it depends on what happens politically in Harrisburg,” Cartwright said.
 
He added Amtrak executives also were interested in the project as a possibility to expand the federally funded railroad's markets. Amtrak operates the Keystone Service commuter line between Harrisburg and Philadelphia.
 
“If a decision was made to move forward with such an initiative, Amtrak would be interested in operating the service,” spokesman Craig Schulz said.
 
But NJ Transit likely would be the operator, even in Pennsylvania.
 
There's precedent for such an arrangement. In New York, NJ Transit operates service on Metro-North Railroad's Port Jervis Line and Pascack Valley Line. Just as the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines connect to New York City over NJ Transit's rails, so too would the Lackawanna Cutoff Line. Upon entering New Jersey, trains from Scranton would roll toward Manhattan on NJ Transit's Montclair-Boonton Line or Morristown Line.
 
Educating candidates
 
Flynn said Cartwright and others also have been speaking with the Democratic candidates for governor to educate them on the importance of the rail line. He said recently they had spoken with two of the 10 seeking the nomination — U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord.
 
“They both seemed very receptive to the idea,” Flynn said.
 
Meanwhile, the Corbett administration seems otherwise, Flynn said.
 
Blake, too, said he was a little disappointed by the lack of attention to the project by the Corbett administration, though he said state Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch recognizes there have been significant state and federal commitments to regaining rights of way.
 
“We really have not had a dialogue between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the state of New Jersey about how to move the project along to additional phases,” Blake said.
 
State Rep. Mike Carroll, who represents parts of Luzerne and Monroe counties and serves on the House Transportation Committee, said there is a lot of work to do to get the project completed, with much of it in New Jersey, and it will take coordination between all parties.
 
“It's incumbent upon political and community leaders in Northeast Pennsylvania to advance the conversation to restore rail service,” Carroll said. “It would ease the burden of traffic on Interstate 80, not to mention other roads in Lackawanna and Monroe counties.”
 
He said traffic is expected to increase by 2 percent per year on the interstate.
 
And he said the state possibly could come up with the funds through a multi-module fund in the recently passed transportation bill.
 
But, Carroll cautioned, “It's not a done deal; it's a long way from there.”
 
Barletta agrees, due to funding being so scarce. He added, though, officials still should try to see if it is at all feasible, because transportation is a driver for economic development.
 
“The only way it will end is if everybody stops trying,” the congressman said.

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