If Missouri is the “show me” state, then perhaps the Lehigh Valley can be the “show me” region.
And a test of passenger rail service between Allentown and the New York City metro area may just be what the public needs to believe it can really happen, said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
Pawlowski said he and the mayors of the other two Lehigh Valley cities, Bethlehem’s Bob Donchez and Easton’s Sal Panto, have been meeting regularly in recent months in a push to establish passenger rail service between the Lehigh Valley and New York City.
The reaction has been mixed, with many people very enthusiastic about the idea of an easy trip to the big city and others concerned about the cost and complicated logistics of such a plan.
But the biggest reaction Pawlowski’s been getting is doubt that it can or will ever happen.
“For many, it just didn’t seem like it was possible,” he said.
When Joe McHugh, senior vice president of government affairs and corporate communications for Amtrak, was in the Lehigh Valley for a sustainability summit Dec. 7, Pawlowski shared with him the frustration he felt in getting the level of support needed to make such service a reality.
During his speech at the event, McHugh urged local officials to “push harder” to make it happen, but in a breakout session later, he spoke with Pawlowski and offered to do one better.
Using existing Norfolk Southern rail lines, now used for freight trains, Amtrak could set up a test – perhaps as early as April or May – to send a passenger train between Allentown and New York. McHugh said.
“I think that is huge,” Pawlowski said. “I think it will dramatically change the discussion. When people see it, it will make it real.”
While it can be done, the plan isn’t a done deal. Pawlowski said Amtrak needs a formal request for a test from one of the region’s congressional representatives, such as Charlie Dent or Matt Cartwright, before he can proceed.
If and when Amtrak’s receives a request, the test would be performed for free, McHugh told Pawlowski, the mayor said.
One of the biggest myths Pawlowski said he hopes such a test will dispel is that the infrastructure improvements would be too costly to be feasible.
“There’s a perception that the infrastructure isn’t there, that it has to be built from scratch, but that’s not true,” he said.
The big challenge will be working out a schedule to allow the passenger service to share rail time with freight trains, but such schedules have been worked out in other regions.
In fact, there is only one area where Pawlowski sees a potential problem.
Since there is only one rail bridge over the Delaware River, that could be a spot where bottlenecking could become an issue.
He said the addition of a second rail bridge would be a reasonable expenditure to make the route happen.
Pawlowski said his meeting with McHugh left him with renewed hope for making passenger rail a reality in the Lehigh Valley.
In fact, while the mayors were looking at a plan that would be more than 10 years to fruition, McHugh insisted it could be done in less time, perhaps (and this may be wishful thinking) in as little as five years.