The Corbett Administration has agreed to spend $3.8 million annually to support passenger rail service in western Pennsylvania, but the state Legislature has the final say.
The House Transportation Committee heard Monday from several groups pressing to save the Amtrak line known as “the Pennsylvanian,” connecting New York City to Pittsburgh and providing the only service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh with a single train per day in each direction. The federal government is cutting subsidies to the line next year, thus requiring the state to pick up the slack.
But Pennsylvania probably will only be able to do so if a the General Assembly approves a new transportation funding package this spring, said state Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Gov. Tom Corbett has called for $1.8 billion in new spending on transportation over the next five years, funded primarily with higher fees on drivers and higher taxes on gasoline at the wholesale level.
But if a new funding package fails to make it through the General Assembly, what happens to Amtrak between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh?
“That’s a good question,” Hess said. “I think we have to have the transportation package in order to have the funding to do it.”
But he’s optimistic that an agreement will be reached before June 1 – his own personal deadline for wrapping up the issue.
State Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said this week he is preparing his own package of transportation bills for a public unveiling next week.
Since Corbett’s announcement in January, Rafferty has been among the chorus of voices pressing for a higher spending total, tentatively about $2.8 billion over five years.
The western Pennsylvania rail line still runs on a grade surveyed and built in the 1850s, a long, windy trip through the Allegheny Mountains that takes nearly six hours to cover the distance between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.
The same trip can be made by car in fewer than five hours.
Toby Fauver, a deputy secretary for the state Department of Transportation, described the rail service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg as “not attractive for travelers,” leading to low ridership figures.
The western Pennsylvania line had 212,000 riders in 2012, according to a recent Brookings Institute report. But the line lost more than $7 million in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.
The eastern half of the line — which connects Harrisburg to Philadelphia — is a different story. It had more than 1.4 million riders in 2012, making it one of the most traveled lines in the nation, according to the Brookings’ report.
The state pays $9.6 million annually in support of the eastern part of the line, according to PennDOT.
The federal government initially asked Pennsylvania to pay $6 million annually to keep the Pennsylvanian line running, but negotiations cut the figure to $3.8 million.
Kenneth Josephs, a member of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, a nonprofit based in Pittsburgh, said Monday the state should fund not only the existing rail service, but should provide more trains each day.
“The Pennsylvanian, in spite of its lower speeds through the Alleghenies, provides a service that appeals to many Pennsylvanians and folks from other states traveling to Pennsylvania,” Josephs told the committee.
Free-market groups like the Allegheny Institute, a Pittsburgh-based think tank, have questioned whether taxpayers should be asked to pay to support passenger rail that loses money.
Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.