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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Paul Marin: Why the LV Needs Passenger Rail

True to his word, LV passenger rail advocate Paul Marin has answered some tough questions from those of us who have our suspicions about the viability of this mode of transportation. I appreciate Paul's willingness to share his views with a skeptic. His writing skills are an added bonus, but I hope he doesn't start blogging.

1) Please explain how you plan on benefiting personally as the result of passenger rail in the LV. Do you intend to run for Lehigh County Exec?

I will personally benefit from rail in the Lehigh Valley because I will save gas money. Of course, so will thousands of other people. I am not considering running for County Executive, besides I would be a terrible politician. I would make statements like "Homeownership is a Privilege, not a Right" or some other politically incorrect thing.

2) Is your wife the same Joyce Marin who was appointed CED director in Allentown?

Yes, last time I checked. She’s fantastic. Hi Honey!

3) Federal dollars only support half the cost of these projects. The challenge is finding the local funding. The State has already told Marin that there is 'no money' for this project, therefore, the Counties will have to fund the 50% share. Is anyone ready to support a local dedicated tax for passenger rail service from Easton to Phillipsburg? The Counties might consider $75,000 a small amount to throw at this effort just to keep Joyce and Paul happy, but it is the tip of the iceberg. Do you expect the counties to pay for this?

There is serious discussion at the federal level about a national infrastructure bank. Both houses of Congress have passed bills to provide grants for rail construction. Governor Rendell has personally appealed to Congress to add infrastructure to the economic stimulus package, because this will help get our economy back on track. So I think there is going to be new money coming down the pike.

Regardless of the exact federal funding used, however, there is almost always a local match required. Funding for rail is going to take a lot of discussion, research, and outreach to taxpayers to talk about their preferences. No one is going to advocate for robbing Peter to pay Paul, and no one expects the taxpayers to write a blank check! But I believe there is going to be an equitable way to fund rail infrastructure where the taxpayer gets their money's worth.

The Fed can find billions of dollars to bail out Wall Street firms. Think about it. Money for rail is small potatoes, but it benefits you a lot more directly.

4) If one really wanted to improve commuter access from the Valley to New York, wouldn't exclusive bus lanes for express services along I-78 and Expanded park and ride lots do the trick?. Luxury bus coaches could easily make the Trip in a little over an hour.

Both buses and trains have a role to play in the transportation system. There will continue to be buses in the I-78 corridor, but rail is a cost effective addition, because so much of the infrastructure is already in place. Of the ninety miles of track between Allentown and New York, 55 miles are already used by passenger trains. We are just building on the system that is already in place.

In contrast, constructing bus lanes on I-78 would be a massive highway construction project that would cause delays to commuters for years. You would have to rebuild bridges and overpasses and design special interchanges. This would be extremely expensive, if it is even possible. The federal Highway Users Trust Fund is already in a deficit. Congress had to inject $8 billion in general funds just to pay the bills on time, so more highway funding is less and less likely.

Let’s talk about capacity of buses and trains. Trains can carry more people. You would need 15 luxury coaches (or 11 regular ones) to carry the same number of people as a six car commuter train, which can carry over 600 people!

The train can be highly efficient.

Let’s also talk about what people actually want. All things being equal, most people would prefer to ride a train over a bus. But things are never equal. The bus cannot equal the comfort of the train, for one thing. And compare the typical bus station to the typical train station. Buses are a very efficient mode of transportation, but rail just plain makes sense in certain corridors, especially when most of the rail line is already in service!

You also asked about speed. As mentioned above, constructing HOV lanes would cost more than rail, would cause construction delays on the highway for years, and is not likely to happen. Without any special lanes, the bus sits in traffic with everybody else.

5) Who is really benefiting? Who is really behind this? I'd like to know whether you've been approached by any developers or any of the folks in the Lehigh Valley Partnership?

Who benefits? That is an excellent question. Who benefits from less congestion on highways? Who benefits from easy and fast access to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Wilmington, Reading, Harrisburg, New Haven, Hershey, etc.?

Who benefits from saving gas money to get to medical appointments, college courses, work, shopping, major airports, entertainment, etc?

Who benefits from revitalizing downtowns?

Who benefits from giving people access to jobs?

Who benefits from encouraging companies to locate in the Lehigh Valley because of easier business travel?

Who benefits when college graduates decide to stay here because they feel they are connected to the whole northeast?

I think everyone benefits from a better transportation system. It benefits the
local economy, creates jobs, and it reduces our dependence on driving and oil. The rail system will give people options for how to make their trips — more and better choices than they have today. We all win.

When I give my rail presentation to people, 99 out of 100 are enthusiastic supporters. This isn’t coming from the top down — it’s from the bottom up.

6) We're all willing to pay taxes to benefit education or to fund health care. But why should a senior citizen on a fixed income pay a dime so that a commuter can go to NYC more quickly? Isn't that a bit unfair to those of us who do not receive the wages paid in NYC and Jersey?

Seniors ride trains just like everybody else — maybe even more. They travel to medical appointments. They visit family. They go shopping. They go to shows. They do all the same things that everyone else does — and they get a senior discount! Does your senior citizen like driving everywhere? Can they drive? Do they feel safe on the road? Do they have a disability? Can they afford gas? This is about making public transportation work for everyone — especially those who need it the most.

The senior on a fixed income also benefits from the economic impacts of the rail system. Commuters pay into Social Security. They pay property taxes in the Lehigh Valley. They pay sales taxes. In essence, commuters are "importing" money from the metropolitan economy and spending and investing it in the Lehigh Valley. Those imported dollars circulate through the local economy, as they are dropped into stores, banks, teacher's salaries, etc.

The dollar that passes through my hands has been through many hands before me. So anyone should be excited to bring more dollars into the region to circulate through our economy.

This is not just about commuters — it is about transportation for everyone, and it is about making the Valley a better place to live and do business. Imagine — you could travel by train for meetings throughout the northeast and be home by dinner. That kind of access is a powerful thing for selling the valley as a good place to do business. More businesses equals a better economy. A better economy means benefits for everyone, including seniors.

7) We already know that it won't solve congestion, but won't it exacerbate it? With a train to NYC, we will bringing in more commuters to the Lehigh Valley. These people will sprawl into the suburbs as they did in the last housing rush. How the hell does that help the rest of us?

Unfortunately, highways contribute to sprawl. When you build a highway but you don't protect the agricultural land, you have to expect the land along the highway to get built up. That is just capitalism at work. The highway provides access, and shopping centers and subdivisions are worth more to the land owner than a field of corn.

But trains are different than highways — they can reduce sprawl. We will, of course, build park and rides, but we will also build stations downtown. In downtowns we can expect landowners to build new housing and to rehabilitate older buildings, because this has happened in other places. As new downtown residents move in, they will then create demand for restaurants and stores that revitalize the business district. The revitalized business district will attract other new businesses. It is a virtuous circle where investment begets investment, leading to local economic growth.

In other words, trains draw people in, they don't spread them out.

Fuel prices ain't what they used to be. And they will get higher in the future, because we import 70% of our oil. We will need to “drill, baby, drill” just to stay in the same place. The era of long distance driving is waning. Americans drove 5% fewer miles in June versus a year ago. If that trend continues, don't expect a lot of demand for subdivisions far away from everything. Expect more people to want to live where they can walk, bike, or take transit to get where they need to go.

8) Why are you making no effort to change zoning laws? Without that, people are going to ruin what little open space is left in the Lehigh Valley?

We should change zoning laws. We need to make it easy to build around the train station! We need to allow for mixed uses, so people can walk where they need to go. I would love to solve all the problems in the Lehigh Valley with one silver bullet, but it is going to take all of us pulling together to improve local planning, and I am glad you are signing on to work for better zoning! Other regions have created plans to preserve open space and agriculture, so there is no reason why we can't follow their example here.

Let's do it!

9) What about the schools? Won't all these people bring or produce children, and won't they stress our school systems? Once again, why should my taxes pay for that?

A Rutgers University study shows that for each 100 apartments constructed around a train station, you might expect about two school students. Why so few children? Because the development at rail stations appeals to "empty nesters" — parents whose kids have grown up and left. It also appeals to young people who do not have children yet. These demographic groups want a more urban lifestyle with lots of entertainment options, so they opt to live downtown and near the train station so they can zip to activity centers. Demographics also tell the story. In the coming years, millions of baby boomers are going to retire, and many of them will look to downsize their housing. Many of them will conclude that they don’t want five bedrooms and a big yard anymore. Some of them are going to want to live downtown where they can walk to restaurants, movies, stores, etc. So ask yourself: if the baby boomers are downsizing, who is going to buy their old houses? The answer is (hopefully) young families. We will be closing the loop.

We already have highways running everywhere. So in terms of attracting people to the region, the genie is out of the bottle. At this point, we need to redistribute whatever growth is going to happen anyway so that we develop inwards, rather than outwards. Ultimately, this means lower taxes because we will not need to build so many new schools, water and sewer systems, fire stations, etc. because the existing communities already have those things.

Just to conclude the discussion, let me emphasize that we are still several years away from trains running. I encourage people to get in touch with me and with your local officials to share ideas and thoughts and to get involved in the discussion.


Anonymous said...


I would like to debate you about this issue in a public forum.

We are two Republicans.

Are you game?

Anonymous said...

We don't need rails at the public expense.

We need job creation and health and beauty care.

Anonymous said...

Rail isn't an option, it's a necessity, the cheap oil bonanza is over. Commuter rail would decrease traffic, reduce pollution and reduce oil consumption. It would also generate much needed development in the downtowns, around the stations. I want my taxes used for this, not to fund skate parks and astro turf and swimming pools.

Anonymous said...

Marin is very passionate about this issue, and I appreciate that. I also support rail, but with reservations as I feel there are too many open issues.

As much as I hate studies, we need one to see what ridership can be expected, analyze the impact on the potential inflow of new residents, road congestion, etc. This study needs to be done by an impartial party so that there is no appearance that it was stacked. Short story - we need to know what we can expect by way of impact.

I don't want to see rail brought here without a comprehensive zoning plan already being in place.

This zoning plan should include the ability to charge traffic impact fees on developments so that our school districts and towns can offset their costs there rather than going back to existing residents.

If possible, fares need to include appropriate charges that come back to the counties to offset costs incurred.

These are the items just off the top of my head.

The Banker

Anonymous said...

Why is NYC the main target of commuter trains? Why not Philly? How much of that infrastructure is already built? I ask this as a 20 something professional who lives in the Philly burbs, takes the train downtown every day, enjoys the ability to hop a train for the nightlife, and is a Lehigh Valley transplant. I think I might be the target demographic for this...

Look Out Lehigh Valley said...

trains to Philly ARE being considered as a part of a potential comprehensive transit plan. This particular discussion is regarding a study which is already underway regarding the route 78 corridor from New York City, and whether or not the counties should pay for the study to extend to the LV.

Anonymous said...


These studies have been proven to by abysmally wrong in many other projects.

Projections of ridership, promises of reduced traffic, commute times and pollution are always way off base.

Anonymous said...

Studies suck!

I-78 was going to end traffic jams on 22. HAHAHA.

It was said, I was there.

Anonymous said...

this zoning plan should include the ability to charge traffic impact fees on developments so that our school districts and towns can offset their costs there rather than going back to existing residents.

That is ridiculous. Because a family decides to live in our community, to effectively make a lifetime commitment to contribute to the local economy, they should be penalized? We all share the costs of infrastructure and it should make no difference to you or anyone else if I am new to the area or not.

Just a note that I am a lifetime LV resident and this anti-NJ/NY thing is getting really tiresome. We are not stuck in a vacuum. The LV is thankfully fluid and changing.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Lifetime LV resident,

I disagree completely. Although NYC-NJ people are just like us, their exodus from NYC has resulted in increased congestion, increased cost of living and increased taxes here. It has gobbled up our open space. It has ruined much of what the Lehigh Valley the Lehigh Valley.

I think we need to plan for this sort of thing, and that developers should be required to pay impact fees to offset those increased costs.

Note that an impact fee would not be charged to someone moving into already developed territory, so it is not anti-commuter. It encourages a commuter to live where housing already exists.

Jeff Pooley said...

Paul's comments were fair, intelligent and impressive. Any new thoughts, Bernie?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Jeff, I share your assessment. Paul is persuasive. He has sold me partially, but not completely.

For one thing, I think a funding request like Marin's should be decided at the same time other funding requests are decided. He should not be able to jump to the front of the line but his request should be decided along with many other worthy requests. So I would not agree to a fast track.

I will also be listening to what Ron Angle says on Thursday.

Anonymous said...

I can agree with many of Paul's points. In fact my wife and I are considering a counter-migration to Central Jersey as empty nesters to be able to work in the City and commute by bus or train.

I would like to see any plans for rail service be oriented around primary service to downtown Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. Also, I'd like to see negotiations for train service include the state legislature stepping up and enacting tougher planning laws to help direct regional growth to urban "transit" areas. As it stands, suburban municipalities are being forced to accept development they don't even want. I think that directing new growth to urban "transit" areas provides enough of a public good to offset the "taking" of property value in the suburban areas.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1027am, it is only fair to levy the costs of infrastructure work on those that cause the need.

I am also a lifetime LV resident. If I moved from Macungie to Fogelsville into a new development that creates the need for road improvements up there, then I (and others in my new development) should pay for that, not the people already in Fogelsville - it's not their responsibility to pay for me.

The Banker

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:42am and Joe Hilliard, how else can we figure this stuff out? I hate studies too but I don't see any other way.

The Banker

Anonymous said...

"it is only fair to levy the costs of infrastructure work on those that cause the need."

Come on Banker, then why do I have to pay for astroturf at the high school, the grass was just fine for me to play on?

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Come on Banker, then why do I have to pay for astroturf at the high school, the grass was just fine for me to play on?"

Actually, many think that is a bad idea. But we can at least understand the need to pay for something that helps educate our children. We should not be subsidizing commuters.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Come on Banker, then why do I have to pay for astroturf at the high school, the grass was just fine for me to play on?"

Actually, many think that is a bad idea. But we can at least understand the need to pay for something that helps educate our children. We should not be subsidizing commuters.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:56pm, because you own property in the school district and theoretically benefit from improvements in total education of the youth in the community.

Now having said that, I want them playing on grass like we did when we were kids! I think there are limits to what school districts should do and things like astro-turf fields aren't on my priority list so I can't defend that too well.

However, I would not compare an astro-turf field with road improvements (like up in Fogelsville) that had to happen - basically the different between wants and needs.

The Banker

Anonymous said...


You don't use a "study" based on projections.

You analyze the last twenty light rail projects in the country. Actual experience!

I am compiling the information and will release my "study". Oh, and it won't cost the taxpayers $150,00 ($250,000 if the AEDC is funded by taxpayer dollars - government funding.)

Anonymous said...

So if "commuters" must pay a penalty, does that mean they get a local tax break since they aren't using the community;s resources at the same level as someone who is "not" a commuter?

I live in a new development and am not a commuter. So since I decided to build a new house and contribute a hell of a lot more to the tax base and am a lifelong LV resident, I should pay some sort of extra fee? That is the most ridicous notion I've heard.

And I disagree wholeheartedly with what Bernie O'Hare summarized about the decline of the valley.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Commuters will be using the local resources as much as anyone else. There may be empty nesters, but most of them will be paretns with children who need to be educated.

Developers who builkd new homes are already being assessed an impact fee. And that is passed on to people like you. Yes, you should pay it. Building new homes while our urban cores are rotting is a big problem. I know people who have built as many as four new homes and they are lifelong LV residents, too. Every one of those new homes contributes to global warming, destroys our environment, ruins out quality of life, increases our dependence on foreign oil. If you want to do that, you should pay for it.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:47am, when you relocated into a new development, it probably triggered new road projects, improvements, etc. that would not have been required except for your development.

Who do you think should pay for that?

We're talking hundreds of millions of $$ in road work to support the Lehigh Valley's population growth. Some of it is funded w/ state $$ through PennDOT (still our tax dollars), and others are local projects. Someone has to pay and I believe it should be at least in part the people that cause the need.

The Banker

Anonymous said...

Bernie, not all developers pay impact fees. For example, Lower Macungie Township is just now getting around to charging traffic impact fees - about 20 years too late.

The Banker

Anonymous said...

Zoning is an issue and the loss of open space? Hah.... Nothing is being built now and won't be for the next decade. The population growth in the LV is stagnant. Assuming that growth will continue in the near term is short sighted. Long term growth will be marginal at best. Loss of open space? Last time I drove around the Lehigh Valley, I saw miles of open space. These alarmists that want the taxpayer to keep funding programs that benefit a few and are based on trumped up sky is falling issues like zoning just lack credibility.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:03am,

Open space is a tremendous long term issue. You're right, we're not going to see substantial growth again for awhile, which is why this is the best time to plan - no pressure from developers or others who have a vested interest in building on every square mile of dirt.

The worst time to plan is when it's too late - see Lower Mac and their traffic study.

Gregg Marzano said...

It sounds like those against rail, think we should put a fence around the Lehigh Valley or speed bumps on I-78.

If you have not noticed the Lehigh Valley is quickly becoming a top regional tourism destination for the big cities. Rail should be part of this tourims plan as to save on parking garage, highway and bridge infrastructure expense etc.

Great blog - How do you have time to right all these articles?

Bernie O'Hare said...

No sleep.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Marin almost sounds as if he knows what he is talking about. He is a 'true believer' and that means that he will jam the data and debate with information that only fits his argument.
Not that there is anything wrong with that, but there are definitely two sides to this issue.
Trains are only more efficient once they are built.
I would suggest looking to the North and the dollar amounts coming out of their efforts to extend rail to meet Monroe County's new residents' desires for a quick commute to New York.
In addition to the monumental initial investments, the ongoing cost of that service will far outstrip the volume of ridership and the fare charges if it is going to remain competitive (in other words, cheap enough to use).
It may need as much as $25 million a year subsidy. That is more than twice what it currently costs for public transportation in the Valley.
Just having half the facts out on the table, isn't going to make this happen.
And glib answers are cute but we deserve a serious discussion.
What the people want isn't always what is best. People want home ownership to be a right not a privilege. Shall we organize ourselves around that desire?