Bringing Passenger Rail Back to the Valley
ARTICLE BY SCOTT SLINGERLAND
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELIZABETH HUNT
Growing into a Regional Rail Network
To make the whole rail idea more enticing (and profitable), the LVEDC study is looking at how rail service can stretch in all directions from the Lehigh Valley. In addition to eastbound service to New York and southbound service to Philadelphia, extending service north to Scranton and west to Harrisburg would solidify the A-B-E trifecta as the hub of a truly regional rail network. A rail network of this scale could replace approximately 347 flights per day from Philadelphia Airport that are less than 300 miles long.
Emissions of Locomotives Compared to Other Vehicles
Reducing flight volumes from airports would reduce the airports' thirst for expansion, and it would also reduce CO2 emissions (per passenger) by up to 90% compared to air travel.
Some may question the environmental benefits of trains compared to autos and buses. This is a complicated comparison, that must consider the entire life cycle of vehicles: their manufacturing, how many passengers they carry on average, roads/tracks they use, fuel sources (for electric trains only, does electricity come from power plants that consume fossil fuels?), and more...
Compared to automobiles, conventional diesel-electric trains produce about 1/3 of the CO2 emissions (per passenger). Diesel-electric trains produce comparable to slightly higher CO2 levels compared to diesel buses over an average lifetime. Trains being developed with higher efficiency and regenerative braking have a chance to beat conventional buses, but at the same time, technology in buses is advancing in the same direction. The emissions war between buses and trains is one area where buses may have an edge, depending on whose calculations you consider. (Pssst... you can save the environment by taking the bus today! You don't have to wait!)
Where Will the Tracks Go?
Some proponents of rail expansion propose to use interstate highways for rail lines, such as author J.H. Crawford. While the laying of tracks directly onto asphalt may seem extreme to many, the idea of using established highway right-of-ways should not be ruled out.
The preliminary rail study is just underway, which means that fruition of rail service is still years away. Land for tracks and stations need to be procured which is an arduous and sensitive task as open land becomes more scarce. Heading east to New York requires an agreement with New Jersey Transit to extend their service from High Bridge to Phillipsburg, without which, nothing can happen (they are conducting their own feasibility study as well). Southbound trains to Philadelphia may tie into existing SEPTA service, but that has yet to be studied as well.
How Will We Pay For It?
To most people, the thought of buying trains, laying new track, building stations, bridges and tunnels may sound like a humongous financial burden, in which the federal government will be the likely bearer of the brunt. This is true. The shining beacon of funding for rail development is $8 Billion over the next eight years (of the $787 Billion economic recovery bill). The federal transportation budget includes highways and rail infrastructure. In line with a strategic shift in priorities towards mass transit, funding for highway expansions can (in the future) be diverted toward rail. For reference, the approximate U.S. federal transportation budget for 2008 was $40 Billion (pre-stimulus plan). 1% of this budget went toward rail service (Amtrak). U.S. military spending for 2009 is about $700 Billion.
An Open Mind to See the Most Sensible Means
We must make up our own minds about what means of transportation are the most sensible based on our most important values. Looking at historical trends and our own consumption will tell us what we need to know in order to decide.
Transportation is more than just the vehicles we drive. Transportation systems define the pace and rhythm of how we move through our daily schedules. When a new system is made available for the first time (or in this case, after a fifty year absence), it may be a thing of beauty, marvel, speed and efficiency. However, slowly (over a generation or two), we become reliant on the new system and we build our lives around it, like tree roots growing around a stone. When limits and drawbacks of a particular transportation system become apparent, we are often resistant to growth, if it means divergence from our comfort zone. To make a change is more than simply exchanging a set of car keys for a train pass, it is a renovation of our conditioning. The realization that widening roads from 2-4-6-8 lanes is not the feasible solution is not a spontaneous frying pan to the head; it is a slow process within each of us, by which, through observation of self and society, we are drawn closer and closer to a tipping point. That tipping point signifies a threshold of personal clarity beyond which there is no returning to ignorant practices of the past.
Are you close to the tipping point? Ask yourself the following questions. Do you want to spend hours a day on traffic-jammed Route 22, 33, 145, I-78, I-80 or I-476? How much fuel does your car consume and how much pollution does it emit? Is it possible to go on vacation without a car? What could you be doing to improve your life if you were given back all the time you spend sitting in a car?
In the Interim
In the years before train service gets reestablished in the Lehigh Valley, get a taste of mass transit mobility by using the LANTA bus system or one of the other bus services that run daily between the Lehigh Valley and New York City (Transbridge) or Philadelphia (Bieber). You'll be surprised at how they can take you places in comfort, with less pollution and less stress, all contributing to an improved quality of life for everyone.
In this article, we'll look at the motivating factors for bringing passenger train service back to the Lehigh Valley. To understand this, we'll step into past trends and present sociological and economic conditions that may make it viable. We will also glimpse at transportation trends in other areas of the United States and abroad, as models of what was, what is, and what could be.
Modern Day Mindset
It's funny that without even trying, transportation finds itself at the intersection of social, economic and environmental philosophies. Transportation defines our mobility, whether be it an airplane, a train, a bus, a car, a bicycle, a wheelchair or our own two feet. How we “get around” symbolizes our conscious and subconscious priorities: speed, safety, comfort, health, environment, affluence, community – to name a few.
Nationalism can even be represented through transportation choices. Justification to say, “I drive my gas guzzler a hundred miles a day, because it is my right as an American”, is merely sentimental; it is not sustainable.
While many families and individuals have taken on the supercommute in recent years, every sign points to the non-sustainability of this lifestyle. The Lehigh Valley's population is the fastest-growing and its rate of land-consumption is the highest in Pennsylvania. Traffic congestion, highway deaths, and air pollution, are all trends that are increasing with our current practices. Between 2009 and 2039, the population of the United States is predicted to increase by 33%1. Think about the impact of that...
Switching Tracks to Passenger Rail
Passenger rail transit is a timely topic, as the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) and Lehigh/Northampton Counties have just kicked off a $250,000 moon's eye view study to determine what it will take and how successful it will be to restore passenger service between the Lehigh Valley and New York City/Philadelphia.
The LVEDC is spearheading the rail study, because rail is in-line with its mission to grow economic prosperity for the region. “A regional rail network can attract employers to the area; creating large-market jobs for professionals.”, says LVEDC Marketing Director, Margaret McConnell.
When economic goals are aligned with environmental and social sustainability, everyone benefits. “For the valley's eleven colleges and universities, regional rail network can eliminate the need for thousands of out-of-area students to be transported in by car.” If rail stations return to the downtowns of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, “housing and businesses in the cities will prosper”, says McConnell. This has a domino benefit, increasing the tax-base in the cities, which in turn increases the cities' resources to improve services to city residents. By locating rail stations in city-centers, efficient long-range transportation is directly accessible to all members of society.
When cities regain their status as hubs of transportation, or even, when new communities are planned with density sufficient that people can walk or bicycle to a train or bus station, this is known as “transit-oriented-development (TOD)”. Paul Marin, of the LVEDC, is a champion of the TOD concept that not only reduces reliance on the automobile, but it improves the overall quality-of-life. “TOD residents are five to six times more likely to use mass-transit than non-TOD counterparts”, says Marin. This makes smart sense!
TOD will make the Lehigh Valley a more desirable place to live, by preserving what diversity of the landscape that remains, and by reducing traffic volume on overburdened roadways. TOD can happen much sooner than rail service, as part of “smart growth”, says Easton Mayor Sal Panto (a former high school history teacher). “The freedom that the automobile has given us, has led to land development that makes us overly-reliant on the automobile.” Promoting mass transit, walkability and bicycle transportation is the backbone for Easton's new zoning standards, touting smart growth as the only growth that Easton is willing to consider in the future. If this means that new development will respect existing neighborhoods and not turn them into parking lots, everyone will win. A return to the village mentality, where people share resources and accountability - that is the key.
Decline of Suburbia and Rebirth of the Village
In conversation with Mayor Panto of Easton, he talks of a “reverse migration” on the horizon, with large populations coming back to cities by choice, with awareness of their environmental footprint and consumption. This is the essence of a smart growth mentality. Think about everyone having and maintaining their own swimming pool that is empty most of the day, versus a community sharing a single, larger swimming pool that is located within walking distance for most residents.
The same example can be used for a variety of the most common land-uses: food stores, office buildings and retail shopping. It all ties together with transportation. Which do you think is more sustainable? Single-use land development, where daily destinations are miles apart? Or mixed-use land development, which takes on the feel of a village (if you prefer the slower pace), or the city (if you like excitement)? Mixed-use development favors mass-transit and eliminates the need for automobiles. Viva el Pedestrian!