Hurdles Remain for Western Pa. Amtrak Expansion

Although they continue to push for expanded Amtrak service, public officials in western Pennsylvania acknowledge that finding money for that service is a significant challenge.

“You’ve got a tight budget, so any additional money to expand rail service is tough to come by,” said State Rep. Bryan Barbin, a former member of the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee.

pennsylvaniaBabin said the proposed service expansion is likely to take time to realize because other projects are high on the state’s list of priorities.

He said the potential hurdles include the state budget, cooperation with Amtrak and negotiations with Norfolk Southern, which own the tracks used by the New York-Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

The state-funded Pennsylvanian is the only intercity rail service on the NS line between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Support for additional service has been particularly strong in the Johnstown area. Officials from Johnstown and Cambria County testified last year in favor of the service at a meeting of the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee.

Support has also come from public officials in Pittsburgh and Altoona.

Babin said that other projects higher on the state’s list of priorities so, “It’s going to be a while.”

Pennsylvanian Congressman Bill Shuster has also expressed support for the expansion.

“I believe these new investments will bring new economic growth to our communities,” said Shuster, who is chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “Passenger rail service provides an important link for southwestern Pennsylvania to the rest of the country, and anytime there’s a market demand for new service, it’s something that should be looked at.”

Babin observed that Pennsylvania is operating at a deficit and the legislature is looking at the possibilities of raising taxes, cutting spending and closing loopholes in the state budget.

However, he noted that Pennsylvania spends $18 million per year on passenger rail of which $17 million goes to support trains in the eastern third of the state.

“We need to do the same thing if we’re going to connect the whole state,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s the biggest transportation issue for the western part of the state.”

House Transportation Committee Chairman state Rep. John Taylor, of Philadelphia, said he is still committed to expanding rail service in the western part of the state.

“It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together,” said Eric Bugaile, the committee’s executive director. That would mean reaching an agreement among PennDOT, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern officials on the same page.

Aside from state budget challenges, another sticking point is the fact that the NS route to be used by the service is a busy freight corridor.

NS spokesman David Pidgeon said any expanded Amtrak service should not adversely affect NS freight customers.

Pidgeon said NS was amendable to what he termed “viable plans” for expansion, which would take the carrier’s concerns into account.

Amtrak spokesman Mike Tolbert said the carrier continues to work with PennDOT “to provide a thorough evaluation of additional service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. Due to the nature of these requests, which often include multiple stakeholders, extensive research and negotiations, they can require a significant amount of time to finalize.”

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