Thursday, December 08, 2016

Pittsburghers, Amtrak, NS and PennDOT

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Pittsburghers, Amtrak, NS and PennDOT Ben Vient

"I think it’s one of the first times that Amtrak, PennDOT and Norfolk Southern were all at the same table answering questions from legislators on this issue,” says Lucinda Beattie, Vice President of Transportation for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, a business advocacy group focused on the revitalization of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Beattie refers to the Aug. 23, 2016 hearing at Pennsylvania’s House Transportation Committee, on one of Pittsburgh’s developing transportation issues: restoring passenger rail service to western Pennsylvania.

Until 1969, 12 daily Pennsylvania Railroad (after 1968, Penn Central) intercity trains connected Pittsburgh eastward. By 2005, service had been reduced to one daily train: Amtrak’s current Pennsylvanian, created in April 1980, with current average speeds of 45 mph.

Following the Great Recession of 2008, Pittsburgh risked losing its one daily passenger rail connection to eastern Pennsylvania. “We had to speak up about that,” Beattie recalls. Those discussions spurred the transportation focus within the Pittsburgh business community’s Downtown Partnership. “It really helped many of us to gather and realize how important transportation issues are to the success of a business community,” she says. Now, discussions focus on increasing frequency to three daily trips, over the freight-dense Norfolk Southern (former PRR, then Penn Central, and then Conrail, prior to the latter’s acquisition by NS and CSX in 1999) main line that connects Harrisburg to Pittsburgh.

In 2014, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership produced a report advocating to increase rail service, entitled “On Track to Accessibility,” emboldened by the fact that Pennsylvanian ridership increased 14% between FY 2010 and FY 2015. The report estimates the additional service would cost between $10 million to $13 million per year. On Feb. 26, 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), responsible for funding the service under section 403 (b) of the Rail Passenger Act of 1970, wrote to Amtrak:

“AS WE CONTINUE to get comments submitted on the Keystone West, we’d like to have Amtrak provide PennDOT with a high-level cost estimate for the addition of one to two trains a day to/from Harrisburg. This estimate should include operating and capital costs.

“We know that, ultimately, in order to make this happen, we would need to work with Norfolk Southern and Amtrak to identify timing for the potential trains, get trainsets ordered, and work through proposed labor to run the trains.

“At this time … we only need a high-level estimate. Before we take on any of those bigger picture steps, we need an order of magnitude cost of what it would take to fund an additional one to two trains a day on the Pennsylvanian.

“Could you let us know how quickly Amtrak could get us this estimate?”

To date, there has been no answer to this February 2015 request, says PennDOT.

“It’s really become now a question of democracy,” Beattie explains. “Are we being listened to on these transportation issues?”

At the Aug. 23 hearing, Norfolk Southern Vice President Government Relations Rudy Husband referred to the 204-mile main line between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh as a “premiere corridor” for rail freight between the East Coast and Midwest: “We will coordinate the operational feasibility study. We will provide estimated costs to the sponsoring public agency, but these studies, they’re not cheap, and they take time, at least a year or probably more.”

Over two dozen civic groups submitted letters of support for increasing the frequency of Pennsylvanian service:

From Allegheny County’s Congress of Neighboring Communities: “Our residents now have fewer transportation options within a 500-mile radius than they have had in the past 40 years.”

From Pittsburgh’s Green Building Alliance: “Increased passenger rail service has the potential to eliminate nearly 73,000 automobile trips and more than 16 million vehicle-miles from Pennsylvania , which directly reduces CO2 emissions, criteria air pollutants, and non-source point pollution.”

From Henry Pyatt, Pittsburgh’s Small Business and Redevelopment Manager: “The American Lung Association currently rates Johnstown, Altoona, and Pittsburgh as among the worst 25 metropolitan areas for year-round airborne particulate matter of the 430 metropolitan areas in the nation. Increased passenger rail service cannot only reduce emissions per passenger-mile, but it can induce activities in urban cores.”

From AARP Pennsylvania: “Passenger rail is a mobility option for midlife and older people who travel both within congested regional corridors and between cities separated by longer distances.”

From the Greater Pittsburgh Hotel Association: “This investment will provide huge benefits to the region, with more people visiting and exploring our city.”

From Sue Etters, PA Committee for People with Disabilities: “I and other members of the disabled community use the Amtrak train as our number one means of transportation to Harrisburg. We want to continue to build and improve the communities in which we live.”

From the Oakland Planning and Development Corp.: “Educational and medical institutions are some of the main drivers of Pittsburgh’s new economy. They make Oakland a regional and national destination. Improving passenger rail service … will provide … the necessary connections to continue to thrive as an economic hub going forward.”

From Visit Pittsburgh: “Traveling by train has become increasingly more popular to younger generations, including millennials.”

From Sustainable Pittsburgh: “Increased service for western Pennsylvania will bring material benefits serving the social, economic and environmental needs here and for the Commonwealth as a whole.”

From the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group: “Adding two more trains to the highly efficient Pennsylvanian route has practically no downside.”

Joining in the support: commissioners from Allegheny, Westmoreland, Cambria and Mifflin counties; and the mayors of Johnstown and Pittsburgh.

No letters were submitted in opposition, says Eric Bugaile, Executive Director
of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives
Majority Transportation Committee. “The people of western Pennsylvania have built momentum for this and are voicing their support.”

“We’re trying to find the middle ground with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern,” says Mark Spada, board member of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail. “We believe a large number of passengers are not being served.”

Pennsylvania’s House Transportation Committee adopted Resolution 1103 on Oct. 24, 2016: “To conduct a study of the feasibility of providing two additional passenger rail trips daily between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and its impact on existing freight rail service... Resolved, that the committee issue its report to the Speaker of the House of Representatives within nine months from the date of adoption of this resolution.”

The people of Pittsburgh wait for the resolution to be revisited at the start of the 2017 legislative session, in their city with a history museum named after their late Senator John Heinz. Engraved on a museum wall, one of his principles: “What makes a society thrive are citizens determined to see shared ideals realized—realized not just for the select few, but as our pledge says, ‘for all.’”


From the December 2016 issue of Railway Age



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