Bethlehem City Council Community Development Committee members Wednesday evening unanimously passed a motion to recommend to city council to enact legislation for the creation of a railway authority in the Lehigh Valley.
City council members Bryan Callahan, Karen Dolan, and Adam Waldron gave their approval for the formation of the Suburban Metropolitan Agency for Rail Transit (SMART) proposed and currently spearheaded by Kirk Raup of Bethlehem.
Valley commuter rail service to New York City and Philadelphia has only been an idea talked about but never officially acted upon until now.
According to Raup, he prepared a railway proposal to be presented to Bethlehem City Council late last spring; however the idea was tabled due to other issues requiring council's attention.
The proposal would assist council in the creation of the required public entity to properly explore commuter rail service for Bethlehem and the entire Lehigh Valley.
Raup explained his proposal's intent was for Bethlehem City Council to ask Easton and Allentown's councils to join in the railway authority's creation with Bethlehem being the lead since it would benefit the fastest initially from direct commuter rail services.
"No one else, whether from the Lehigh Valley or outside the area, is going to provide this for us. It is something we are expected to initiate locally," stated Raup.
He noted the likely route to connect with New Jersey Transit would be at High Bridge, NJ, over existing high-quality freight lines, mirroring the SMART plan.
Due to continued growth in the Valley and the ever increasing number of long distance commuters to larger metropolitan areas, Raup said it is time to get serious about bringing back rail service to the Valley's cities before it becomes entirely cost prohibitive.
Raup also mentioned, "The substantial development projects built around and near passenger train stations are worth the effort alone."
Bethlehem councilwoman Karen Dolan remarked, "I think we're ready to get going with this. This is something we have to do."
Raup said the project could be financed with state and federal funds; however the Valley's cities have to support the concept by creating an authority or agency and appointing board members to it.
Subsequently, the railway authority then falls under the state's jurisdiction. He added Bethlehem already has the necessary infrastructure to implement a commuter railway.
Councilman Adam Waldron questioned, "This is a very positive thing. Why didn't it ever get off the ground before?"
However, Bethlehem Director of Community and Economic Development Alicia Miller Karner cautioned any new rail authority "would have to have some funding associated with it. The administration has to have funding."
Raup said state money available "from a multi-mobile fund" could be used for a railway system in addition to other government funding sources.
Finally, he estimated it may only take a year for SMART to get state monies; however, it may take approximately "eight or nine years to really get service going in the Valley."