Local leaders are increasingly hopeful that the passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill by Congress represents a giant step forward toward returning passenger rail service along the Route 422 corridor.
“Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania serve as the commonwealth’s economic engine, but we’re still held back by an outdated infrastructure,” said state Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., who has been an outspoken advocate for the return of passenger rail and represents the greater Pottstown area.
“With the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure deal’s passenger rail funding, we’re closer than ever to bringing the train back, moving our infrastructure into the 21st century, and fully unleashing the region’s economic, cultural and educational potential,” said Ciresi.
Similarly enthusiastic was state Rep. Manuel Guzman, D-127th Dist. “Reading was built on rail travel, and we already have the foundational infrastructure in place to ensure reliable, affordable and streamlined transportation that will propel Reading into the future,” Guzman said in a press release.
“The restoration of passenger train service that would connect Reading to Philadelphia and New York has the potential to reshape and reimagine how our community travels to these major cities,” Guzman said.
“This is important for our community, for everyone who relies on efficient, reliable, and safe transportation options to commute to work, get to school, transport goods, and remain connected online,” U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th Dist., who represents Chester County and parts of Berks County, said in a press release issued after the bill passed the House of Representatives.
“In its most recent report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the Commonwealth a C- reflecting both the age and deterioration of our infrastructure. Once enacted, this bipartisan legislation will raise that score” Houlahan said.
Amtrak is the Key Player
What gives them hope of rail’s return extra traction is the involvement of Amtrak. In March, before the bill was even passed, Amtrak released a long-term capital expansion plan that calls for providing passenger service from Reading to Philadelphia three times a day.
With stops in Reading, Pottstown, Phoenixville, King of Prussia, Norristown and Philadelphia, the trip from Reading to Philadelphia would take about 90 minutes. The journey to New York would take about three hours, according to Amtrak’s estimates.
Specifically, the 1,039-page infrastructure bill — which attracted the votes of several Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks County — invests $66 billion in passenger and freight rail, according to the bill text.
“The funds would eliminate Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, modernize the Northeast Corridor line and bring rail service to areas outside the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions,” according to CNN.
Included in the package is $12 billion in partnership grants for intercity rail service, including high-speed rail.
Funding specific to Amtrak is $14 billion less than the $80 billion Biden originally called for in April, but nonetheless represents the largest infusion of federal cash in the 50-year history of the carrier.
During a recent AXIOS interview aired on HBO, Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said “that level of funding is absolutely transformational. Half of that funding will go to building our inter-city passenger rail,” which includes the Reading-to-Philly spur.
Amtrak’s plan calls for the addition of 39 new routes serving 160 new communities. In addition to the Reading-to-Philadelphia line, Amtrak’s plan calls for new routes connecting Allentown and Scranton to New York City.
Amtrak estimates the rail lines will produce $54 million in annual economic impact and $1.8 billion in economic activity from initial capital investments.
John Weidenhammer, chairman of Berks Alliance, believes funding will be less of an issue than negotiating a “win-win agreement” with Norfolk Southern to allow the use of its railroad for passenger trains, he told MediaNews Group in September.
But Amtrak has legal leverage other rail proposals for a Reading-to-Philly-route have lacked. Unlike those proposals, which relied on the willingness of Norfolk Southern freight rail to allow the passenger runs, by law Amtrak has “preference over freight trains when operating over host railroad tracks,” according to Amtrak’s report.
Amtrak is calling for better “preference enforcement” of this law in the years to come, which may give Norfolk-Southern more reason to negotiate quickly for the use of its tracks along the Schuylkill River.
Norfolk-Southern, with 19,000 miles of rail in the eastern U.S., reaches more than half of the U.S. population and will also benefit greatly from the infrastructure bill.
Reducing Highway Congestion
Although passenger rail service operated from Philadelphia to Reading starting in the mid-19th century, it was suspended in 1981 during SEPTA’s transition to an all-electric network. Since then, southeastern Pennsylvanians have relied on cars and buses to commute into Philadelphia and travel to nearby communities.
The result is that southeastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia’s infrastructure has not been able to sustain the increasing reliance on cars and buses.
According to an IRNX study, Philadelphia was the second-most congested city in America and the fifth-most in the world in 2020. With more than 250,000 people commuting into the city each day, the average Philadelphian lost 94 hours sitting in traffic, which cost over $1,300 a year in fuel expenses, according to the joint release from Guzman and Ciresi.
Ciresi and Guzman said they both view the restoration of a passenger rail service as the best way to alleviate this critical infrastructure issue and increase southeastern Pennsylvania’s economic growth.
The passenger base is certainly there.
Recent studies show rail connection between Phoenixville, Pottstown and Reading, could support 3,000 to 6,400 riders per day, Jody Holton, assistant general manager of planning at SEPTA and former director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, told the Democratic Policy Committee in April.
“In addition to reducing commuter traffic into Philadelphia, the rail line would promote easier access to communities along the corridor, which would bolster dining, entertainment, educational and business opportunities to places such as Reading and Pottstown,” Ciresi said.
Weidenhammer said it’s been estimated that there’s $250 million in new real estate development where a new commuter train stops.
There is also an increase in property values. While looking at ways to fund a return to passenger rail, a committee set up by Phoenixville Mayor Peter Urscheler in 2019, produced a study suggesting the increased property values could be an infrastructure funding source, by using something called “tax-increment financing.”
The idea is to take advantage of the increase in property values when a commuter rail station is built and service provided. For example, a study showed that property within three-quarters of a mile of the Paoli train station is worth an additional $16,800 because of that proximity.
Tax-increment financing requires convincing all the taxing bodies — counties, school districts, municipalities — to forgo banking the increased tax revenue after the property is developed for a period of years. That increased tax revenue can instead be used to pay off a bond used to build the infrastructure needed to bring the train — things like new stations and additional parking.
That is the successful approach of the new “Bright Line” rail line built in southern Florida in 2018 linking Miami, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale – and currently constructing an expansion to Orlando — Brian Pitzer, CEO of the advocacy group All Aboard Erie, testified in April.
The Bright Line is “is looked at in terms of the increase in real estate value, that’s part of the economic benefit,” said Pitzer.
Holton agreed, noting SEPTA data shows living within 1.5 miles of one of their regional rail stations adds 11 percent to a home’s value.
A new state law allows for the creation of something called a Transportation Revitalization Investment District, or TRID within a three-quarter-mile radius of a new rail station.
A rail station, new or remodeled will need parking — long been a valued commodity in growing Phoenixville and is fast becoming one in Pottstown.
“I’ve talked to leaders in Pottstown and they’ve told me that with the restaurants, and the theater, parking is getting pretty hard to find on a Saturday night,” Ciresi told MediaNews Group. “Can you imagine what it will be like once we have the train?”
Managing things like parking and infrastructure upgrades may take regional oversight. Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties formed a tri-county passenger rail committee earlier this year with representatives from each of the three counties. The committee is in the process of establishing an authority that would receive federal funding and employ staff to develop plans.
Serving the Underserved
According to the White House, the infrastructure bill recognizes the fact that “communities of color are twice as likely to take public transportation and many of these communities lack sufficient public transit options.”
According to the U.S. Census estimates for 2019, 14 percent of Reading’s population reports being of more than one race and Black residents make up nearly 13 percent of the population. The median income is $32,176.
In Pottstown, residents who identify as “Black-only” make up more than 23 percent of the population and more than 7 percent identify as being of more than one race. The median income is $50,331.
More than 37 percent of Norristown identifies as “Black-only” and another 27 percent identify as Latino or Hispanic, according to 2019 Census estimates. The median income is $48,414.
In its vision document, Amtrak pointed out that its plan for increased intercity rail travel “also helps reduce both racial and economic inequities. Many locations within the United States that have significant minority populations, particularly in the South, are underserved by Amtrak’s current intercity passenger rail network. This vision’s focus on adding service to these communities and regions will help address that inequality with service and economic opportunity,” Amtrak wrote.
“In addition to the geographic expansion to areas with large Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, Amtrak’s commitment to small business, particularly minority-owned enterprises, will be a significant factor in diversity and inclusion as well,” according to the plan.
“Our underserved communities would especially profit from increased mobility options that increased rail service would provide,” Ciresi said.
Boosting Public Transit
Another rail beneficiary of the bill will be public transit. “In total, the new investments and reauthorization in the bipartisan infrastructure deal provide $89.9 billion in guaranteed funding for public transit over the next five years — the largest federal investment in public transit in history,” according to The White House.
“America’s public transit infrastructure is inadequate – with a multibillion-dollar repair backlog, representing more than 24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars, 200 stations, and thousands of miles of track, signals, and power systems in need of replacement,” The White House wrote.
This is particularly true in Southeast Pennsylvania said Holton.
SEPTA’s rolling stock was “built when Nixon was president. If it’s not replaced by 2030, we will be forced to close 100 stations and four routes,” she said.
“SEPTA is at a crossroads. To help support the region’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and ensure the system is viable for future generations, we need to make significant investments now,” said SEPTA general manager and former Montgomery County Commissioner Leslie Richards.
“This will enable SEPTA to meet pressing state of good repair needs and move forward on our projects of regional significance, such as King of Prussia Rail, the modernization of our trolley system and replacing one of the nation’s oldest rail fleets,” she said.
Further, SEPTA estimates it has a $4 billion backlog in maintenance and repairs, Holton said.
How Long Will it Take?
Don’t expect immediate signs of the bill’s impact.
“Most projects will not happen overnight. The pace at which federal funds reach different places nationally depends on the types of projects pursued and the types of programs channeling resources to these projects,” according to a Nov. 9 article by the Brookings Institution. “As we learned during the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act a decade ago, ‘state of good repair’ projects, such as resurfacing or improving roads, happen faster than more sophisticated capital projects, such as new system expansions.”
“You can’t just drop a train on the Norfolk-Southern tracks and an hour later say ‘let’s go,’” said Ciresi. “It may be five years before we see service returned. What’s important is that this is a big step forward.”
MediaNews Group writer Steven Henshaw contributed to this report.
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