Jul. 18--PITTSTON TWP. -- Wilkes-Barre director of operations Butch Frati asked the Lackawanna/Luzerne Metropolitan Planning Organization Wednesday to consider a feasibility study to restore intercity passenger rail service from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia.
Members of the organization who attended the meeting at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport told him there would be a number of obstacles to the proposal, however, including a lack of funds to pay for a study.
Frati presented a letter from Mayor Tony George and Controller Darren Snyder stating that the criteria for the new Amazon headquarters "shows how important rail transportation is in the decision-making process for major economic development site locations."
In their letter, George and Snyder pointed out the Luzerne County Transportation Authority is relocating its headquarters from Kingston to Wilkes-Barre in the former Murray Complex, which lies between Pennsylvania Avenue and a double set of railroad tracks.
"We believe it would be prudent at this time to incorporate passenger train service into the long-range planning for that site," they stated in the letter.
An Intercity Passenger Rail Study conducted by the Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Committee in 2019 identified three corridors for access to Philadelphia: Harrisburg, Reading-Pottstown and Lehigh Valley.
A feasibility study would determine which corridor would be most feasible to restore passenger rail service from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia, George and Snyder stated in the letter.
Lackawanna County Transportation Planning Manager Steve Pitoniak said the Lackawanna/Luzerne Metropolitan Planning Organization has very limited funding and the request should probably go through the state Department of Transportation.
"It never appeared on any long-range plan. That would be another issue to get it on a long-range plan which we would be looking to update next year," Pitoniak said. "There are a lot of steps that have to be done before we could even get to talking about funding a study."
Pitoniak added there was a study done on restoring passenger rail service from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia in the 1980s and there were issues back then.
"Some of the right-of-way had been abandoned," he said. "Some of the right-of-way had been sold off."
Scranton engineer John Pocius said the Wilkes-Barre corridor also was not in a previous study done last year about extending rail service to various points in Pennsylvania.
"A very successful one is from Philadelphia to Harrisburg," Pocius said. "One of the biggest ones was going from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, but it faced a lot of concerns because of rights-of-ways being sold and abandoned."
Restoring passenger rail service from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia would involve using some of the Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad.
"Obviously, we connect some of the dots between the locations," said Tyler Glass, executive vice president of operations for the Reading & Northern Railroad. "If there is a study, we'd be happy to work with you folks on such a study."
Glass said the Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad does not go into Philadelphia, however.
Most of the rail lines in that area are owned by Norfolk Southern and it is strictly a freight rail system.
Alan Baranski, vice president of the transportation planning services division for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Alliance, said most freight operators do not want passenger rail.
"Freight is a revenue generator. Freight is free enterprise," he said. "With passenger rail, you're getting into public transit dollars."
The decision about whether or not rail service should be re-established should be all about whether or not there is demand for the service, Baranski said.
"You would have to establish there is demand for such ridership as far as where people want to go and how they want to get there," he said. "With the establishment of any kind of new mode, it's very expensive and you really have to take a hard look at the demand."
While the proposal to restore passenger rail service from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia is facing obstacles, Pitoniak said a decades-long discussion to resume passenger rail service from Scranton to Hoboken, New Jersey is finally moving forward.
A meeting has been set up for Wednesday, July 24 at 1 p.m. in Sussex County, New Jersey with local and New Jersey officials about the proposal, he said.
"This will be kind of a meet-and-greet with people from Pennsylvania and people from New Jersey," he said.
A committee has been working on restoring passenger rail service from Scranton to New Jersey since the 1980s, Pitoniak said.
Lackawanna and Monroe counties applied for funding for the proposal and each were awarded $200,000 local share account grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to continue the next phase of the study, he said.
"It has always been a sticking point to try to get funding to maintain or re-establish rail service," he said.
Contact the writer:
(c)2019 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)
Visit The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) at citizensvoice.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.