Northeastern Pennsylvania’s lack of a cohesive mass-transit system is a problem, slowing people on the go and delaying economic progress.
In an area where cars, trucks and the occasional bus traditionally have carried people to their destinations, any discussion about modern passenger rail often gets quickly dismissed. And while a recent proposal to connect Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton with passenger rail might seem off the wall to certain people, it’s already done something positive: It has prompted a public conversation on the topic.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta made headlines — and generated some head scratching — when he mentioned the possibility of passenger rail service between Scranton and Luzerne County’s two most populated cities. His pitch goes like this: When companies consider new locations, they examine how the workforce moves from Point A to Point B. In our area, those points are connected by a congested Interstate 81 — a highway desperately in need of expansion.
That works to our disadvantage.
Barletta’s transit notion, which the former Hazleton mayor brought up last week during a meeting with The Times Leader’s Opinion Board, quickly was derided by many readers as being a non-starter. (One online comment humorously suggested we build a canal between Scranton and Hazleton, linking those cities via Wilkes-Barre with steamboats.) But the larger idea — one that calls for a more comprehensive transportation network — has merit.
Several factors are worth considering:
• Data show younger workers favor mass transit even though their parents and grandparents shun it. A recent U.S. Department of Transportation study reveals a 40 percent spike in mass transit use among those in Generation Y. Our region’s transportation network has to adapt to this culture shift.
• According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s long-term capital improvement plan, I-81 will remain a four-lane highway between Hazleton and Scranton for decades to come. As the New York metropolitan area grows to encompass more of Northeastern Pennsylvania, with more people choosing to put down stakes here yet work in or near the Big Apple, that’s a red flag.
• Money already is being spent to extend passenger train service here. New Jersey is doing its part to build the Lackawanna Cutoff rail line. (It’s Pennsylvania that’s dropping the ball on bringing the line across the Delaware River and into Scranton.) Scranton’s intermodal transportation center is being built near rail tracks, where Barletta’s trains from Scranton might one day meet NJ Transit trains to New York City. The center already is intended to connect buses from the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS), the Luzerne County Transportation Authority and Martz Trailways.
Old-school thinking that maintains cars are good enough for an area that’s still largely rural is perhaps one of the big barriers to success in luring businesses here. Younger workers want mass transit, and our state’s lack of investment in the region’s highway infrastructure makes that need all the more acute.
Considering all this, don’t be so fast to pooh-pooh discussion of a Scranton-to-Hazleton choo-choo.