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Kirk Raub trying to get passenger trains rolling in the Lehigh Valley

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Kirk Raup was feeling frustrated as he walked out of Allentown City Hall Wednesday night.

The 59-year-old Bethlehem man single-handedly has been trying for years to get passenger rail service restored from the Lehigh Valley to New York City and Philadelphia.

He had just made his latest pitch to Joseph Davis and Ray O'Connell, two members of Allentown City Council, who serve on its public works committee.

He had looked forward to meeting with them, because there would be more dialogue than the three minutes allotted when he speaks at City Council meetings.

But as he headed back to his car, Raup said: "I'm beginning to feel like a fool. I can't seem to light a fire where I need to."

He wondered aloud if he should just give up.

"I've been working on this since the '90s," Raup told the council members. "It just breaks my heart to think we're going to try to move into the future without rail service as part of our transportation mix."

Raup has been asking officials in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton to jointly create a rail transit authority. He proposes calling it Suburban-Metro Area Rail Transit –or SMART regional rail. He indicated its first task would be to develop a viable plan for rail service, including financing.

"I'm trying to figure out a way to get this effort off dead center," he told the two City Council members.

He asked for their help to bring the city councils and mayors of the three cities together for an open discussion leading to the creation of the rail authority.

But O'Connell, who is vice president of Allentown City Council, told Raup the mayors – not city councils – should begin the process of creating an authority.

"It's critical that the three mayors are in support of this," said O'Connell. He suggested the mayors should come up with a common resolution and present it to their individual councils for approval.

"That would be the impetus to get this moving forward," said O'Connell. "You need to have the leadership of the three cities bring it down to each council."

"I didn't accomplish what I intended to," said Raup after the meeting. "I hoped Allentown City Council would reach out to the other two councils in Bethlehem and Easton to begin a dialogue."

Raup told O'Connell and Davis he's already met jointly with the mayors of all three cities in October, for the second time in two years. He's also been to all three City councils several times within the last year. He said the mayors do seem to be behind the idea ---and the city councils too.

But he later explained everybody seems to want someone else to take the initiative.

He indicated his next move will be to try to persuade the mayors to follow O'Connell's suggestion "to begin to move forward on this."

Raup said the cities would have to pass ordinances to create a rail authority and then appoint board members.

"If things go at lightning speed, we're probably looking at 10 to 12 years before the first train runs. This is not anything that will come together very quickly." He predicted he will be in his early 70s by the time the first passenger train rolls out of the Lehigh Valley for New York or Philadelphia.

Raup said it's not overly risky to create an authority "to get this done the way it's done all over the country." He said the federal government requires a public authority be created as a first step.

He estimated establishing rail service to New York and Philadelphia will cost about a half billion dollars. He said if local sources prove they can come up with half the money, the federal government will pay the other half.

"We'll have to raise upwards of $250 million locally," he said. "That's a lot more affordable than we've been led to believe over the years."

Restoring passenger rail service for Lehigh Valley residents is an idea that roars into the area like a thundering locomotive every few years, then quietly rumbles away again.

Skeptics maintain bringing back and operating passenger trains would be prohibitively expensive, partly because they would be under-utilized.

A 2010 Lehigh Valley Transportation Study suggested private bus service is the best option to meet transportation needs to New York and Philadelphia through 2030. It concluded bus service is faster than train service would be to those cities.

Raup is trying to educate the Lehigh Valley that rail service is needed and affordable. He said a 2010 Lehigh Valley Planning Commission survey showed the number one concern of local residents is a lack of inter-city rail service.

Passenger rail service gradually vanished in the Lehigh Valley between the 1950s end early 1980s, according to Raup, who says most local residents have no idea what it's like to take a train anywhere.

He said transporting 1,000 people requires at least 250 cars, about 40 buses or one five-car train.

He said rail service primarily would get people to and from work in New York and Philadelphia. He indicated it is becoming prohibitively expensive for commuters to drive to those cities and future gas prices probably will be higher than they are now.

He said trains alleviate traffic congestion and reduce wear and tear on highways and bridges. O'Connell said Routes 22 and 309 as well as Interstate 78 already are "a mess" -- and the Lehigh Valley is expected to grow by 145,000 more people in the next 20 years.

Raup said restoring passenger rail service would benefit LANTA, which would serve train stations with bus service, and Lehigh Valley International Airport, because people from larger metropolitan areas would take trains to fly out of LVIA.

He said passenger trains also would help keep seats filled in Allentown's hockey arena and that tourists coming to the Lehigh Valley by train probably would stay more than just a couple of hours.

"I hate to see this die again," said Raup as he left City Hall.

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