BY KRISTINE PORTER
After several decades wondering if passenger rail lines would return to northeast Pennsylvania, federal funds are bringing that vision into focus.
Congressman Matthew Cartwright, D-8th, has announced new developments regarding the rail line at an event he hosted Jan. 4 at the Stroudsmoor Country Inn, Stroudsburg.
Funds through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021 will provide $66 billion for rail investment, Cartwright said. This includes funds for Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration to improve existing lines and expand service to new areas.
The infrastructure bill provides $12 billion specifically for new rail lines.
“We know that putting our area back on the rail map will grow businesses, create jobs and boost tourism, bringing in billions of dollars in economic development,” Cartwright said.
Amtrak completed a study in August 2021 that focused on 39 areas in the country where it could grow passenger train travel. The Poconos is one of the sites at the top of the list.
Amtrak’s plan suggests three round trips per day between Scranton and New York City with stops in the Poconos and New Jersey.
Raymond Lang, vice president of state supported services business development for Amtrak, said the study estimated this new passenger line would generate $87 million in annual economic activity, plus $2.9 billion from one-time investments along the corridor.
Although Amtrak is suggesting three trips per day, Lang said more trips could be added.
“The partner, whether it’s the commonwealth or a coalition of communities, could set the service levels however they want,” he said. “States generally grow services incrementally over time.”
Cartwright said he expects the passenger line will provide transportation to more than 20,000 people every day.
Chris Barrett, president and CEO of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, commented.
“From small mom and pop shops to our large resorts, the return of the Amtrak passenger rail service will be a game changer for our local economy and the more than 30 million guests who visit the Pocono Mountains every year,” Barrett said. “In addition, our residents will benefit from an enchanted quality of life with easy access to and from New York City.”
The passenger rail would have an impact on traffic.
“The expansion of passenger rail as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law will do so much for our small business owners, manufacturers, tourism and more, from lowering the cost of doing business to empowering our communities to reap the benefits of fewer congested highways and roads,” said Congresswoman Susan Wild, D-7th, who joined the conference via Zoom.
In order to get there, more work needs to be done on the project.
Lang said the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority has contracted with Amtrak to do a $400,000 study to show ridership and revenue projections, and high-level infrastructure costs associated with starting the service.
Work on this study has begun and Lang said it should be completed by August 2022.
Larry Malski, director of the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, offered his comments.
“We’ve been at this project for decades,” Malski said. “We are a willing participant. Amtrak, we’re thrilled to have as a partner, and we have very willing property owners.”
The passenger trains will be using rail lines already in existence and privately owned by the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority. These lines are not used for freight. This should help to quicken the expansion, because Amtrak will not have to negotiate with rail freight companies for use of the local lines.
Malski said the rail authority’s original vision of a commuter line from NYC to Northeast Pennsylvania is becoming a reality in New Jersey.
“That federal commuter project is underway,” he said. “The first 7 miles is actually under construction.”
Lang said once funding is awarded and all of the environmental impact statements are in place, then generally it takes two construction seasons before construction begins.
“You have to have environmental impact statements in place to use federal money and then you have to be awarded the federal money,” he said. “That process could take 12 to 18 months or longer.”
When the rail line is ready for passengers, it will consist of five or six coaches for short-distance trains, Lang said. Long distance trains usually have several additional coaches.
“We’re really excited about the opportunities and we are going to do everything we can to support the coalition here to make it successful,” he said.