ALTOONA – There's no simple solution to providing additional passenger rail service to western Pennsylvanians.
That message was loud and clear during a Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee hearing held Wednesday afternoon at the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, where eight state representatives heard testimony related to passenger train service, or the lack thereof, between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
In front of a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 100 people, the following state representatives asked questions and provided comments regarding that testimony, including committee chairs Rep. Tim Hennessey (R-Pottstown) and Rep. Mike Carroll (D-Hughestown), along with Rep. Martina White (R-Philadelphia); Rep. Louis Schmitt (R-Altoona); Rep. Sara Innamorato (D-Pittsburgh); Rep. Perry Warren (D-Yardley); Rep. Ed Neilson (D-Philadelphia); and Rep. Jennifer O'Mara (D-Springfield).
Jennie Granger, PennDOT's deputy secretary for multimodal transportation, said a 2014 study determined the capital costs necessary to make this happen, which translate into $1.2 to $3.7 billion in 2019 dollars.
That estimate, Granger said, didn't include environmental remediation or right-of-way costs, and also doesn't consider compensating Norfolk Southern, which owns the current track.
Granger said PennDOT is still working with Norfolk Southern to come up with a hypothetical schedule and an estimate on capital costs necessary to add passenger rail to the line, a process that could take 10 to 12 months.
Regardless of the outcome, Granger said continued funding for studies, infrastructure and maintaining any future increase of passenger rail service between Pittsburgh and the state capital will be difficult.
"This is a challenging time in Pennsylvania's transportation fund overall," she said.
Norfolk Southern's Resident Vice President, Rudy Husband, said implementing passenger rail would have to be done in a way that would not affect the company's current freight customers.
"We aren't opposed to (passenger rail), it's just incredibly complicated," Husband said.
With 40 to 60 freight trains per day on the path from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, Husband said portions of separate track or a completely separate track for passenger trains may be necessary.
"We're really stretched to capacity on this line right now," he said.
For the last several years, local elected officials have advocated for an Amtrak schedule that would allow Johnstown residents to commute to work in Pittsburgh and vice versa.
Lucinda Beattie, vice president of transportation for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said the demand is there in more ways than one.
Downtown Pittsburgh is projected to have thousands job openings over the next several years, Beattie said, and expanding passenger rail service could provide a way for residents of Greensburg, Latrobe, Johnstown or even Altoona to commute to and from those jobs.
"Let's make it simple for people," Beattie said.
Expansions of passenger rail in other states have been accomplished through multiple funding sources and incremental investments, Beattie added.
"Our efforts are not one of nostalgia, this is for meeting an unmet need," added Mark Spada, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail.
Despite one daily train between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh that exists now, Spada said there are 215,000 to 230,000 passengers consistently using it each year.
With 14 daily weekday trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Spada said he thinks that serves as proof that, as train frequency increases, so does ridership.
Innamorato said she currently uses the trains as a means to commute to the state capital for her role as a state representative and is confident that seats would be filled if the frequency of those trains increased.
Although expansion of passenger rail service in the western part of the state is an investment, Innamorato said it would also be an economic development tool to attract people to the communities in between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, many of which were just as affected by the downturn in the steel industry as the "Steel City" was.
Two years ago, Cambria County officials testified during a similar meeting held in Pittsburgh about their advocacy of expanded passenger rail service.
Along with state Rep. Jim Rigby, all three Cambria County Commissioners and David Knepper, executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance, attended Wednesday's event to show continued support of the idea.
"This is another showing that there's demand, that people are asking for this," President Commissioner Tom Chernisky said.
Commissioners Mark Wissinger and William "B.J." Smith agreed that the issue has been studied at length and said it's time for action.
Wissinger said Norfolk Southern's cooperation and state funding will be key to that action, while Smith said linking Johnstown with Pittsburgh would be a gamechanger for Cambria County's workforce.
Knepper said he thinks passenger rail service would revitalize the county's economy by enticing younger generations to stay in Cambria County, even if it means working elsewhere.
"We have to keep on top of this," he said. "It's critical."