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Get passenger rail ‘back on track’ in the Northeast, Pennsylvania

“They say they built the train tracks over the Alps… before there was a train that could make the trip. They built it anyway. They knew one day the train would come.” This familiar line comes from a popular motion picture, “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Decades later, the train did come to Italy. In fact, the Italian railway system is one of the most important parts of the infrastructure of Italy and has grown with a new high-speed rail network.

So, if Italy can be the European pioneer despite a challenging terrain of mountains, why can’t Pennsylvania transportation thrive on our rails?

At a recent House Democratic Policy hearing on the Progress of the Passenger Rail Restoration Project, legislative members explored that topic. The hearing was chaired by Policy Chairman Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie, and state Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery.

As a policy committee member, I welcomed Lawrence C. Malski, president of the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, who testified about the restoration of passenger rail service, currently under construction in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Malski testified that over 20,000 Pennsylvania residents currently reside in northeastern Pennsylvania and commute to workplaces in northern New Jersey and New York City by bus and car. He said the dire daily and increasing congestion these commuters face on Interstate 80 threatens their ability to get to work. The commuter rail aspect of the rail restoration project would provide a safe, secure, all-weather, and reliable transportation alternative for Pennsylvania’s commuter residents and will help relieve congestion on I-80 for New Jersey residents traveling this route during rush hour.

The Scranton-to-New-York-City rail corridor is owned by two state public agencies: the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority between Scranton and the Delaware Water Gap, and New Jersey Transit between Delaware Water Gap and New York City. He said this is significant because it does not require access to private Class I rail carrier properties or facilities, which has been an impediment to other proposed new passenger rail proposals in Pennsylvania.

Malski also stressed another significant benefit of the project involves Amtrak’s proposed new rail route between New York City, the Poconos, and Scranton. This Amtrak service will benefit the tourism, recreation, and educational markets in the Pocono Region and Scranton and allow Pennsylvania residents and northern New Jersey residents to access the national Amtrak rail network to travel to the over 500 Amtrak stations in the United States and Canada.

In 2019, Amtrak had a record 32.5 million passengers, with the largest travel indicated from the Northeast Corridor being from Boston to Washington, D.C. The company has a $30-to-$40-billion backlog of infrastructure investments.

Of course, the plans for passenger rail do not come without a price. Malski said Pennsylvania General Assembly needs to provide the continued funding for the project. The Federal Transit Administration, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and PNRRA have already expended $94.5 million on acquisition and construction for getting this project completed. Phase II would cost another $288 million, with the total project cost at $588 million, split between the two public agencies that own the corridor. With proper and consistent funding, Malski is hopeful that the project would be accomplished in a four-to-five-year time frame for completion.

Recently, Gov. Tom Wolf invested in rail infrastructure, approving 26 rail freight projects that will create jobs. The members of the Pennsylvania State Transportation Commission gave their blessing to the assistance program. We need to make that type of investment in our passenger rail system.

Regardless of whether one is a Democrat or Republican, we all agree that Pennsylvania’s infrastructure is poor in just about every corner of the Commonwealth and needs to be improved. The establishment of high-speed rail is overdue.

Passenger rail should not be dismissed as obsolete. Our neglected railroads spanning across Pennsylvania towns and cities can be revitalized for future generations.

Trains represent one of the most important ways people and goods travel. Big cities rely on fully operational passenger trains that carry millions of people a day.

Freight trains carry over 40 percent of goods between our towns and cities throughout the United States.

As our population continues to grow, so does the use of our transportation infrastructure. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on the federal and state levels to pass comprehensive transportation bills that provide a strong and dedicated funding stream to strengthen rail transportation.

Rep. Maureen Madden is a Democrat from Monroe County.

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