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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Folly of Passenger Rail Service

Former Wall Street money manager Paul Marin chairs the LVEDC's Transportation Committee and is a LANTA board member. Those two facts, all by themselves, make me suspicious. He's also been identified as the driving force behind an effort to bring passenger rail to the Lehigh Valley. He's already persuaded the publicly-funded LVEDC to kick in $100,000 for a study, and wants Lehigh and Northampton County to kick in the rest. An unelected official wants to spend $250,000 in public funds to study the notion of a passenger rail service from NYC to Easton.

That's great for commuters. For the rest of us, alarm bells should be sounding as loudly as those on any train.

I'd love the idea of light rail or expanded bus service in the Lehigh Valley. But a passenger rail service connecting the Lehigh Valley with the Big Apple will create the very congestion it is designed to eliminate. It will gobble up the very green space that we spend millions to preserve as developers build more homes for commuters. Our school districts, stressed with the burden of educating all their children, will increase taxes even more. It will destroy whatever rural charm is left. We all will be funding a service that benefits very few of us.

I love choo choo trains as much as the next person, but prefer to see them winding around Christmas trees, not carrying an army of commuters to invade the Lehigh Valley and increase our cost of living.

Amazingly, large segments of the Lehigh Valley's progressive community have been brainwashed by this folly. This Tuesday, there will be an 8 PM open house at Easton's Third Street Alliance (41 N. 3rd Street), starring Paul Marin.

A well-meaning puff blog is also promoting this effort to have all of us make life easier for commuters and real estate developers.


Geoff Brace said...

I've said this to several rail supporters: to truly protect the quality of life in the region, before rail service is every established, we need to better safeguard against sprawl. right now there is no regional approach to this problem and I agree that if the current approach to sprawl is continued then rail service will just compound the matter. It will be no different than building another large interstate highway for uncontroled development.

Could rail service be helpful to the LV? Yes, but only if it is coupled with effective planning to prevent uncontrolled sprawl. I think the two steps could be done in tandom, but I also know that there is already resistence to effective planning in the region.

Anonymous said...

It always amazes me that, when I drive to New York, I drive by thousands of acres of farm lands and woods in western New Jersey - then I get to PA and the sprawl begins. Let's do what NJ obviously did and what Geoff is referring to - plan against it, make it extremely difficult if not impossible. Eliminate the attraction and the other issues will take care of themselves.

The Banker

Anonymous said...

Lack of rail service is becoming a major recruitment hurdle for large local employers.

As soon as an MBA from CT hears there is no rails service here they look elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Putting in rail service to connect to existing NJT rail will add very little NYC commuters (optimistically it will be well over 2 hours on the train to get into NYC -- most proposals have Pburg connecting to High Bridge -- High Bridge is currently 2 hours to Penn Station NY). Existing bus service and driving still will likely be significantly shorter options for anyone that commutes to NYC (as I do). The vast majority of weekday users will be people working in NJ and living in PA.

Putting in rail might actually encourage "low footprint" condos etc. in downtown areas with easy access to the train, which could actually go a long way to decreasing sprawl (check out South Orange or Summit NJ for good examples of a "train community.") Better public transportation is usually associated with reducing sprawl, not increasing it.

Having looked at many of the plans my initial excitement over restoring train service in the Valley has seriously diminished -- it won't do me any good in reducing my current commute. Probably the best argument in its favor is actually to help reduce sprawl (though it is clearly not a panacea and can only serve a small part in addressing this much larger issue). I find it ironic that many proponents believe it will increase property values by encouraging NYC workers to come to the Valley (it might increase property values, but it won't be used by many NYC commuters) while many opponents oppose it because they think it will encourage people to develop in more rural areas (it won't, but it might encourage urban development).

Just my view -- Mr. O'Hare -- thanks for making this effort to keep people like me informed on the political happenings in the Valley. I appreciate your efforts.

Brian Thomas
Easton PA

Anonymous said...

Bernie -

Your assessment is right on.

Anonymous said...

There are better ways to slow growth than arguing against rail lines (which may actually help the environment). For example, without the extension of public, taxpayer-subsidized water and sewer lines those farmlands will not turn into condos or tract homes. It's the "elected" people who allowed this sprawl.
I love to hear the old-timers talk about taking the train from Philly to Hamilton Street. I'd love to see rail lines into Philadelphia, where I go for business & pleasure at least once a month.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments / views from several here today. Bernie, have you invited Mr. Marin to comment here, I'd be curious to hear what he has to say in response to these points.

The Banker

Geoff Brace said...

"For example, without the extension of public, taxpayer-subsidized water and sewer lines those farmlands will not turn into condos or tract homes. It's the "elected" people who allowed this sprawl."

Great example of better planning principles. I'd add to it multi-municipal zoning.

Look Out Lehigh Valley said...

As a gigantic proponent of passenger rail service, in all forms (local light rail systems and regional commuter rail) I have to say that all evidence in rail development shows that passenger rail reduces sprawl - as Geoff points out, cohesive and smart planning is of course necessary for the success of transit-oriented development, but I would argue that the lack of cohesive and smart planning has been, is, and will continue to be the reason for the loss of open space and rural charm far more than any transit system every will be. Talk to me after the expansion of Route 22 is complete about the open space to the north of the highway....

I would strongly encourage you to go to the forum with an open mind to learn about what is being proposed. For the record, a study is being proposed. Not a rail line. This is the first step in what is likely to be a 5-10 year process, even once there is support and funding to go forward in the direction of rail (if ever, if Ron Angle gets his way we will only ever have highways and cars because of course roads are not paid for by taxes). Once complete, it will address both potential benefits AND potential problems. This is also potentially a HUGE savings opportunity because this particular initiative is to piggyback onto studies which are already underway in the region, and to buy in at a fraction of what our own study would cost.

I will leave you with this thought, a hypothetical "2014":

Every metropolitan area in a 100 mile radius of the Lehigh Valley (so all of new jersey, the poconos, scranton, reading, lancaster, bucks county, etc...) has spent the money on studies and is lining up the resources and support to implement planning reform and improved public transportation (in all forms) both inside their boundaries and also in between New York, Philadelphia, and each other.

The Lehigh Valley is economically stagnant because many large firms have left the area due to an inability to recruit and retain talent, the cost of gasoline has doubled (again), Bruce Davis is trying to expand route 22 from an 8 lane highway to a 10 lane highway, at a cost of only another $800 million. We think to ourselves, "gee, I guess we ought to commission a feasibility study for passenger rail in the lehigh valley." This study costs us $1.5 million. County Exec John Callahan is all in favor of it, and asks his buddy, Governor Don Cunningham to help him out with some state funding.... The good Governor comes back and says "Gee, all of the state funds have gone to the regions that have been lined up for the past 5 years to develop their plans. Try the feds." Charlie Dent says "oh, well of course the department of interior is investing heavily in passenger rail given the ongoing energy crisis in our country and the importance for making environmentally and economically sound decisions instead of pretending that tomorrow will never come, let me see.... Oh it looks like we have fielded requests for funding from 300 different metropolitan areas so far this year, all over the country. Sorry, you'll have to get on the waiting list, I think there should be funds available in about 5 years."

If you, or I, or any other person, thinks seriously about the future, to decline a study on a major component of smart growth is to stubbornly refuse that the future will ever arrive. I also hope that you would keep an open mind to this idea and not write it off just because you have "suspicions" about the person who has taken the lead on this initiative.

Bernie O'Hare said...


I support light rail. I support alternative transportation. But I don't support contrived "grass roots" movements. That's what happened in January '07, when Renew LV brought Brookings to Hotel Bethlehem to discuss rail. Unfortunately for program planners, which interestingly included Joyce Marin, the Brookings Institutions' Rob Puentes made very clear that rail is no silver bullet and that no rail program is going to stop congestion. Basically, he directly contradicts what you just asserted.

Now you want to spend $250k in public money to study the idea of hooking up to the line running from NYC into Jersy. The LVEDC, a publicly funded corporation, has already kicked in $100k in public money. Now you want LC and NC to kick in another $75k each.

In other words, the public foots the entire bill for a program that will not solve congestion and will very likely add more commuters to this area.

Yuppie power.

I would prefer to see Perucci pick up the tab. He's a developer. He's the one who will be buying properties and options like hotcakes in and around Easton if this thing is ever deemed feasible. Let him pay for it.

Since the rails and beds are mostly in place between Clinton and P-burg, this can be funded by the JTBA. They have the dough. Did I mention that Perucci is their solicitor?

It is very possible that you are allowing yourself to be used by the fat cats in the LVP who won't be happy until every square inch of marketable land is developed. We can always float a bond for a few islands of green like a McDonald's playland among the McMansions.

I support light rail or enhancements to our busing. I do not support any mission to bring more people into the Lehigh Valley.

Even yuppies.

Banker & LOLV,

I'll be seeing Mr. Marin tomorrow night. I did not seek out his input. At a recent function involving artists and bloggers, he actually refused to meet with bloggers.

He'll be meeting me tomorrow night, though, and I'll invite him to express his opinion here.

I am suspicious of his motive and would be insane not to ask those questions. Not everyone is interested in making the world a better place. Lots of people are looking at their own bottom line. That may be insulting to some, but it's reality.

LOLV, many of the people who promote passenger rail also advocate a wider Route 22. Don't kid yourself.

I'll tell you what I told Pratima. It's very possible you're being played.

Since he already conned $100k out of what amounts to public funds, let him get the rest of the dough from the developers who will make a killing if this becomes reality. Let them spend the money.

Bernie O'Hare said...


Vey astute, Geoff. You're a scary guy.

Anonymous said...

Paul Marin=Lyle Lanley.

You know you want to sing it.

Blue Coyote said...

Back in December, I was invited to attend a meeting with U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, in which he hosted several transportation and municipal officials from the Lehigh Valley region and experts from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The purpose of the event was to discuss the steps required to secure federal support for the development of passenger rail service in the Lehigh Valley region.

FTA officials provided information on the federal New Starts and Small Starts programs, which would be used to help re-establish passenger rail service in the region. U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz were also in attendance.

The meeting focused on two initiatives: commuter rail connecting the Lehigh Valley to New Jersey Transit in Highbridge, New Jersey; and commuter rail connecting Lansdale with Quakertown and eventually to Shelly on the Bucks/Lehigh County line.

Congressman Dent noted that currently 23 passenger rail projects across the country receive government support through the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) New Starts program. Additionally, the FTA is tracking roughly 100 major transit initiatives currently in the earliest stages of planning.

FTA officials stressed that steps taken by a community to receive New Starts or Small Starts support must include analyzing possible transit alternatives, such as enhanced bus service and expanded park-and-ride.

I left that meeting with a sense that Washington was going to give the big bucks to the big metropolitan cities. It appeared that the FTA was selling the Small Starts program to the Lehigh Valley contigent. This would just enhance the current infrastructure of bus service to NYC and Philadelphia. That was just my gut feeling.

Jeff Pooley said...

I couldn't disagree more with you on this one, Bernie--and surprised by the nativistic streak in your comments. It's not a question of whether the LV should be linked to the outside world: It's a question of how. Build more sprawl-inducing roads, or widen existing ones, in the bankrupt and anti-environmental pattern of post WWII US? Or else invest just a *modest* percentage of what the federal government spends on roads on much more city- and environmentally friendly train service. Not even worth a feasibility study?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Sure, but not at the public's expense. Let the developers who will benefit from passanger rail pay for it. Don't kid yourself - someone is looking to make a buck here.

My argument is not really nativist. My point is that we cannot plan to add more people to this area without asking loits of other questions about our zoning and already overburdened schools. Why not study that?

Jeff Pooley said...

Yes, let's study that too! :)

Jeff Pooley said...

Another couple of quick thoughts: Yes, developers may benefit. Let's plan our transportation policy so that developers have incentives to develop in places we as the public think are smart: In cities and already-populated areas, and not in a quilt-like farm patchwork that we have now.

It's simply not true--not from anything that I've seen and I've been quite involved--that the support behind this rail initiative is coming from developers. The support is from actual, real-life citizens and folks who care--as astonishing as that might be in a world of astroturf campaigns, etc. Insinuations to the contrary, in this case, are flat-out wrong.

And it's also unfair to call the pro-rail blog as a puff blog. It's a single-issue advocacy blog, but not a PR-driven blog spewing only sunshine. Let's be fair.

Bernie O'Hare said...

There we disagree big-time. Sure there is support from some well-meaning members of the community, including much of the LVBO community. But the Lehigh Valley Partnership is also behind this. It helped fund RenewLV's effort to have passanger rail discussed in Jan '07.

I certainly did not mean to disparage the rail blog, which I called a well-meaning effort, but it exists to promote a single issue. You ask me to be more objective w/ Dent-Bennett press releases, and that's fair, but it's also appropriate to point out that the rail blog is promotional.

Also, this is not some group of people holding hands, dancing thru the daisies. There are people lurking around here, trying to make some money. LVEDC, an arm of the LVP, has already committed $100k of our money to study this. These are, incidentally, the same people who want to widen Route 22.

That's the reality.

The JTBA has the money to fund the study and pay for the $150 - 250 MM line (assuming thaty the bed and rails really are in place) between P-burg and Clinton, and that will bring many more people from NYC and New Jersey at a time when our zoning laws are shot and our schools can't cope. And we'll be paying for them to come here?

We need to step back and ask lots of hard questions. Who is really benefitting? Who is really behind this? We already know that it won't solve congestion, but will it exacerbate it? Why no zoning? What about the schools?

Once those questions are answered, it would then be appropriate to discuss the merits of a specific study.

Jeff Pooley said...

On the blog, I just meant that it's not a "puff" blog. I should know--I contribute to one :). The rail blog is promotes a point of view on a single policy issue. More power to it, and I wish there were more blogs like that. But that's not a "puff" blog.

Bernie, you're right and seem to know more than me about developer support, etc. All those ties should be brought out into the clear.

But a policy like rail funding should ultimately be judged on its merits. And there are many many people that are making good-faith arguments for rail, because they believe it's in the public interest.

If enough of us think rail is a good idea, of course it should receive public funding (from the same pool of state-federal transportation dollars). It's crazy to say that huge expenditures on highways should come from the public, and that all other transportation (that's arguably better on multiple fronts) should be privately funded. The question is, How should we spend transportation dollars: widening roads or light rail?

Perhaps you're right that some folks who support widening also support rail. But as you know from LVBO, a big backstory to this debate involves supporters of Route 22 widening facing off against rail supporters--with the correct assumption that there are only a limited number of dollars to spend. This is really a debate about where our public dollars should go: to widen roads in a futile effort to reduce traffic (I say futile because it's now uncontroversial among professional transportation planners that building more lanes doesn't reduce congestion even in the medium term) and encourage more irresponsible sprawl. Or to fund light rail, which has the real promise of reducing congestion and being better for the environment, responsible growth, and urban revitalization.

Bernie O'Hare said...


My remark concerning that blog was not intended as a snark. To the extent it is perceived that way, I'm wrong and will certainly apologize. I also called it well-meaning and meant that.

A policy like rail funding cannot be viewed in a vacuum. It has to be considered in conjunction with its impact on housing, schhols, way of life and cost of living.

Also, the public fnding for this cannot be viewed the some way we view funding for other modes of transportation. Nearly everyone uses roads. But only a small percentage of our population will use trains in any significant way.

Your reference to this as "light rail" is a mistake. That is far more palatable and less expensive. That's a way of getting people around inside the valley. But you are not promoting light rail - you are promoting passenger rail. The line most likely is the one from Clinton to P-burgh.

This will benefit Jersey and NYC commuters. No one else.

Look Out Lehigh Valley said...

Bernie I think you are taking a rather narrow-focused view of this initiative. It is not about a commuter line to clinton. It is about developing a comprehensive public transportation plan both intravalley and also between here and other metropolitan areas nearby. This will possibly include passenger rail or bus rapid transit

I also think that its insulting to me and to Pratima, and any other interested, informed citizen that you continue to tell us that we are merely pawns in the play of the LVP. I know this may seem shocking to you, but some people are able to study an issue and come up with their own conclusions - I spent a good part of four years studying urban economies, regional planning, and smart development. I have travelled and seen up close, in person, the difference that good transportation makes in a region, especially when paired with smart planning. I have read over 2000 pages of information (raw data, case studies, policy papers and advocacy pieces) about developing transportation (public AND private) and comprehensive regional plans.. Many of the members of LVBO (which I am not involved with, but support their mission) are extremely well educated on the environmental and economic consequences of rail transportation. Yes, the RenewLV forum was funded in part by members of the LVP - there were well over 250 people at that forum, I know because I signed them all in. Are there 250 members of the LVP? When Paul Marin presented his request for support from the LVPC last month there were more than 50 people in the room - how often does the LVPC have 50 people in their meetings? I was surprised that 50 people were even able to find the LVPC offices!

The argument about usage never flies when considering spending money for the public good - public transportation is an environmentally sound alternative to private, and is often the only option for those who cannot afford private transportation. I have never had a fire in my home, does that mean that my taxes should not fund the fire department? I also have no children in public school - but I pay a tax to the school district every year.

Geoff Brace said...

if we are studying transportation, we need to study the land use implications too. I agree with Jeff. I also think that we need to get serious about effective land use. Right now, LVPC, municipalities and the state aren't showing that they are serious about effective land use. To me, these matters go hand in hand. Before a penny goes into transportation system improvements on the scale that we are looking at here, I'd like to see major revisions to how land use is managed around here and elsewhere.

My fear is that we are going to study all of this, get excited, start making improvements and have made the same mistakes that we made when we built 33, 78 and 22. It will take a different form but have a very similar result if we aren't prepared. Anybody who knows me knows that I'll support rail service as an additional component to transportation planning in the LV. I just don't like the idea of failing to plan outside of the transportation implications. And knowing LVPC's record, I think I am justified in my concern.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Bernie I think you are taking a rather narrow-focused view of this initiative. It is not about a commuter line to clinton."

Just got back from the meeting. That's exactly what it was about. Marin was preaching to the choir. His wife was with hi and told the group that the LVPC was very positive about this. Her husband added, "Except for two or three people, and we all know who those were."

Everybody yuked it up.

So much for having an open mind. At that point, I proceeded to ask my questions, and Marin had no answers.

This is a bad idea bc, as Geoff has noted, it will lead to icreased congestion unless we do something about zoning first. Additionally, the schools will have to be considered.

Blue Coyote said...

I would be delighted to see passenger rail service to NYC or Philadelphia, but that will never happen anytime soon. For now, any Federal funding for passenger rail service in the Lehigh Valley is dead.

The way the FTA explained it, the Lehigh Valley would be competing against other metropolitan statistical areas across the United States for very limited funding. The LV is ranked 62nd among MSA's. We cannot compete against the big cities, no matter how good a study the LV drafts.

Over 330 projects have been submitted across the United States for federal funding of this type. Very few are rewarded. Are we kidding ourselves here?

The FTA kept telling the Lehigh Valley contigent (by a wink-wink, nod-nod) that it would be better going after the Small Starts program which would entail looking at the bus corridors, rather than rail.

By the way, any good study would include the following:
1. Mobility Improvements - travel time savings, number of transit dependant riders, user benefits per passenger mile
2. Environmental Benefits - EPA air quality
3. Cost Effectiveness - Incremental cost per hour, incremental cost per rider
4. Transit Supportive Land Use and Future Patterns - Existing land use, transit supportive plans and policies, performance and impacts of policies
5. Other Factors - Economic development, making the case for the project, congestion pricing, optional considerations

All of these are required in the study for federal funding just for project justification, as well as local financial commitments, which looks at stability and reliability of the capital and operational financing plan. These aren't separate studies that have to be done. It can be one study.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Blue Coyote,

I note that nothing in that study includes zoning or the impact on schools.

I did get one answer out of Marin. He himself is not a member of the LVP. He does claim to be investing some of his own money, but I didn't see where. He got $100k from LVEDC.

Look Out Lehigh Valley said...

yes Bernie, but my point is that Paul Marin's proposal is one little piece of a much bigger pie.

Also I'm 100% with Geoff on Land Use Planning, but I don't see why we wouldn't want to do both.

As Blue Coyote points out, the line for rail funding is already long - if we there is any chance that some reform will be taking place 10 years from now, we have to start planning today. I'm not adverse to alternative transportation plans in the meantime, but to me it seems unbelievably short-sighted to say "well we can't get it done now, so we'll just wait."

Bernie O'Hare said...


As monumentally difficult a task it will be to secure funding for a passenger rail line from P-burg into Easton, which is what Marin is talking about, it will be that much more difficult to make a dent in land use planning.

I know. So do most state reps.

The very people (the fat cat developers) who want this rail line are the very people who oppose land use planning. Most of the commuters I spoke to at that meeting did not care about it. I do. They like the idea of getting to Manhattan more quickly.

Also, after the meeting was over, I called Angle to tell him how he was snarked. He told me Bruce Davis offered to arrange a debate between Angle and Marin on the relative merits, but Marin declined. So much for discussion. Marin would lose a debate with Angle, but might have made points that could convince the rest of us.

Like it or not, Marin is going to have that debate next Thursday. he wants his money from NC now and is going there to get it next Thursday. That was news to Angle, who chairs Council's finance committee. I don't think NC is crazy at making $75k bequests that are not part of its budget.

Joyce Marin proudly proclaimed that the "Lehigh Valley Commissioners" support this.


Assuming she's talking about Lehigh County, where's their check?

I say NO. It is premature. These merits further discussion, not money.

Geoff Brace said...

"This is a bad idea bc, as Geoff has noted, it will lead to icreased congestion unless we do something about zoning first."

My very first comment says that I think we can do these things in tandom. Do the study, but before a penny goes into the easements, construction or marketing, get serious about land use and other planning issues. I'm alright with the study, but if this is about smart growth, I want to see the rest of the smart growth components fall into place before implementation (if implementation is deemed worthy by political leaders). Admittedly, I'm skeptical b/c I know the history of these issues in this region and around the state.

Anonymous said...

Sixty-two municipalities; three cities; two-counties, all with the power to control their own destinies within their own political borders.

Fourteen elected state officials who have never voted as a block on any issue.

The political will was gathered decades ago to encourage the sprawl that exists now.

The horse has left the barn. I think it took a bus to New York.

Lap Swimmer said...

The reintroduction of rail passenger service to this area shouldn't be viewed as too far-fetched given the new realities of the energy markets, but the process is viewed as far too expensive and time-consuming, thanks largely to politics.

Up until the early 1980s, SEPTA's service ara inclded another four or five counties on the outskirts of its present service area, including Northampton, Lehigh, Berks, Schuylkill, and Chester. That service was built almost entirely upon the suburban service of the former Reading (Rail) Lines, and served Bethlehem, Pottstown, Reading, Pottsville and West Chester (the latter via the former Pennsylvania. That service ended due to state budget cutbacks during the recession of the early 1980's.

Rail access to the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area ended around 1967, when the former Central of New Jersey truncated its service at Philipsburg. That service was in turn cut back to High Bridge, near Raritan, a few years later, but has since been restored as close as Hackettstown.

The most important thing for all the parties involved to recognize at the outset is that this will not be anything like the much-ballyhooed (and over-rated) European style High Speed Rail(HSR) networks presently showcased by the Beltway dreamers. And it will be somewhat more difficult to implement if a jurisdiction involving more than one state is involved.

For the present, it can only be proposed as an insurance measure should the price of fuel continue its upward spiral, as it almost certainly will But it can be transformed into a rality at much less cost and with far fewer delays than what's being talked up by those whose focus is on re-election and patronage rather than short-term pragmatism.