In February 2016, House Transportation Committee Chairman John Taylor, a Republican state lawmaker from the Philadelphia area, gave us hope for expanded rail service between our region and Pittsburgh.
“I think there’s a pretty strong case for the addition of more trips from Amtrak through to Pittsburgh as an economic tool for the Johnstown region and other areas,” Taylor said. “People could get in and out of Pittsburgh for the day. Now, you really can’t get there via Amtrak, work for the day and get back.”
Nearly four years later, we’re still awaiting progress on a concept that holds much promise for Johnstown, Altoona and other communities in the Laurel Highlands.
A meeting Wednesday in Altoona showed that the notion has considerable support among local leaders, some backing in Harrisburg and little response from Amtrak – which would transport those rail passengers – or Norfolk Southern, which owns the rails across which the trains would run.
Even PennDOT, the state agency in place to find solutions to Pennsylvania’s transportation concerns, seems more interested in highlighting the challenges with adding just one more daily run between Pittsburgh and points east of that city.
Currently, trains run once daily both east and west, meaning you can’t ride a train to Pittsburgh in the morning and return the same day.
Jennie Granger, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for multimodal transportation, said adding a second daily run would cost at least $1.2 billion and perhaps three times that amount, based on a 2014 report.
Norfolk Southern Vice President Rudy Husband called the notion of expanding passenger service “incredibly complicated,” since its tracks already see at least 40 freight train runs through the region daily.
We are aware of that, since those trains rumble right through downtown Johnstown.
We are also aware that we’ve heard the same argument from Norfolk Southern since early 2016, when we editorialized: “Norfolk Southern holds the key to expanded passenger rail service.”
Our drum-beating on this issue has also included these editorials:
• “Expanded passenger rail service would be big boost for region” (March 2016).
• “We must keep the passenger rail expansion concept rolling” (October 2018).
We even penned an endorsement of U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster for re-election in 2016 in part because of his potential for bolstering this effort with federal dollars through his position as chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Shuster chose not to run again two years later, leaving the project without a key voice in Washington.
But our support is just an echo of the many voices that have spoken in favor of giving people more transportation options.
Proponents have included former state Rep. Brian Barbin, a Democrat, and former Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason, who said in February 2018:
“I think that this region needs to get closer to Pittsburgh because that’s where there will be economic opportunity for our residents. Our residents could – especially our younger residents – take positions with these companies and they won’t have to sell their homes. They could still live in Johnstown, enjoy all the benefits of our fine health-care facilities, schools, places of worship – it’s a great place to live – and be able to commute back and forth, like people have been doing forever in New York, Philly, Houston, L.A., San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami. This would be great for us.”
Gleason worked with Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, to launch a study about a year ago to determine the feasibility of expanded rail service. That development prompted Barbin to proclaim: “This is the first step. We’re now in a position to move forward.”
Feels as if we’re still waiting for that movement to begin.
PennDOT has not said how that study is progressing. Granger said we’re probably a year away from even having a hypothetical schedule for how and when track work might be done, working with Norfolk Southern.
Wednesday’s hearing at the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum featured eight state lawmakers and representatives from counties and municipal groups.
Expanded service would reach the Penn State/State College area and on to Harrisburg, meaning a significant statewide impact could be realized.
Lucinda Beattie, vice president of transportation for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said her city is projecting thousands of job openings in the coming years – positions that could be filled by folks living along a commuter rail line offering two-way daily service.
Mark Spada, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, urged those at Wednesday’s hearing to work together toward “meeting an unmet need.”
President Cambria Commissioner Tom Chernisky said: “There’s demand ... people are asking for this.”
He’s right. But those people are not being heard.
Money, as with any project, is a hurdle to be cleared. The way our state and federal governments burn through our tax dollars, we would think sufficient funding could be found if the right people and organizations made this concept a priority.
If PennDOT, Washington, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern would address this issue with the same focus and passion as folks on the ground in western Pennsylvania have displayed, we would already be moving down the track toward the results our region needs.