Bethlehem hammers in one more spike to bring back passenger trains
Another victory has been won in one man’s long and lonely quest to bring passenger trains back to the Lehigh Valley.
On Tuesday night, Bethlehem City Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting the creation of a rail transit authority, called Smart-LV Regional Rail, that would work to restore passenger rail service to the city and the rest of the Valley.
Council’s resolution states such rail service is “necessary and essential for the present and future well-being of Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley.”
Kirk Raup, who was sitting in the audience, did not address council.
But he seemed to beam like a locomotive’s headlight when the resolution was approved.
At the end of the meeting, Mayor John Callahan walked across the room just to congratulate Raup and shake his hand. “I’m going to work with you,” said the mayor.
Raup single-handedly has been trying for years to get passenger rail service restored to New York City and Philadelphia.
The 60-year-old Bethlehem resident now holds three aces – formal resolutions of support from Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.
But he’s still many years away from seeing passenger trains heading east or south out of the Valley.
Bethlehem City Council member Karen Dolan called the resolution “a watershed moment for the Valley, since we are the third of the three cities to sign on to this and move it forward.
“I could not be more happy to see this resolution come before us. This is the baby step that is absolutely needed to move this forward.”
Dolan said she really likes the name Smart-LV, but added it could be called the Kirk Raup Regional Rail.
“It’s one of those things where one person, working all by himself, just pushes and pushes and pushes and won’t let up,” said Dolan. “And eventually those of us who are busy say ‘all right already.’ He got through. Godspeed for this rail transit agency.”
Said Raup after the meeting: “This is very good, very encouraging. I’m glad the three cities cane together on this. But the real work starts now.”
In July, Allentown’s City Council became the first of the three municipal bodies to formally throw unanimous support behind Raup’s efforts.
In September, Easton’s City Council became the second, unanimously supporting the creation of the rail transit authority.
The resolution by Allentown’s City Council was slightly different than those passed by Easton and Bethlehem.
Rather than supporting the creation of a rail transit authority, Allentown’s council voted to support feasibility and marketing studies on rail service and to request state and/or federal funding to pay for such studies. It also formally recommended that Lehigh Valley legislators, local municipal governments and authorities join in supporting funding those studies.
However, Raup said no funds can be sought to do such studies until after the transit authority is created. He said he probably will go back to Allentown and ask its council to pass another resolution like those passed in Bethlehem and Easton, “just as a formality. I don’t think that’s going to be much of an impediment.”
Bethlehem’s resolution states it does not commit or authorize spending any city money to create the rail transit authority. “They’re all concerned that no city money be used, which is appropriate,” said Raup.
Raup now faces the challenge of maintaining the momentum he’s succeeded in finally getting started, after advocating for the return of rail passenger service for years. He explained the steps he is taking are required by the state.
His next task will be to get the three cities to pass ordinances actually creating a rail authority, which he calls Suburban-Metro Area Rail Transit, Lehigh Valley.
He hopes that will happen before the end of this year,
He said all three cities will have to approve the transit authority as close to simultaneously as possible. He explained the authority will have to be incorporated and each city will appoint three members to it. He said all nine members do not have to be residents of the three cities, but he will suggest each city should appoint at least one of its administrators to serve on the authority.
After the transit authority is created, which he hopes will happen early in 2014, it will begin looking for money to re-establish the passenger rail service.
Raup estimates establishing that service to New York and Philadelphia will cost about a half billion dollars. If local sources can come up with half the money, he hopes the federal government will pay the other half. “We’ll have to raise upwards of $250 million locally.”
He said he will not ask the cities for money and added the state has very little funding available. “We may even ask for some corporate support.”
He said even after the $250 million local share is raised, it may take Congress years to appropriate the other $250 million match.
Raup envisions that in November 2014 referendums will ask voters in Lehigh and Northampton counties if they are willing to pay a pennies-a-day transit tax to fund the effort. He said that would be a payroll tax of less than a dollar a week.
Raup projects that tax will raise about $250 million over 20 years.
“If the voters shoot it down, that’s the end of it; it will die,” said Raup. “But I don’t think the Lehigh Valley is that short-sighted. Most of the Lehigh Valley recognizes that this is essential to our growth and well-being.”
If the referendums pass, the authority will begin planning and seeking additional funding.
“We won’t see much happening for several years but then things will start to snowball,” said Raup. “This is not anything that will come together quickly. If things go at lightning speed, we’re probably looking at 10 to 12 years before the first train runs.”
He said the norm is re-establishing passenger rail service takes 20 to
30 years, “but it’s increasingly becoming unacceptable to take that long.” He said California did a similar project in just eight years.
Noting the resolution states the Lehigh Valley has lacked passenger rail service since 1962, Dolan told her colleagues “passenger rail did not die a natural death. It was killed through somewhat nefarious means by competing corporate interests that would take us off of rail and put us onto roads. So rails were rolled up. It was taken from us.”
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