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Biden wants Amtrak to run more trains in the Northeast, but he's ignoring a big question

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Every morning, Patty Kennedy wakes up long before the sun rises to take a two-hour bus ride from Allentown, Pennsylvania, near where she lives, into New York to get to her job as a food importer. It’s a lengthy, expensive commute.

But given the hypothetical option to take an Amtrak train instead — something President Joe Biden wants to make possible with funding from his massive infrastructure proposal — she’d refuse.

“I’m acclimated. I don’t mind the bus. I sleep anyway and the train is going to be so much more expensive,” Kennedy said as she stood inside the underground tunnel at New York's Port Authority, where her bus pulls in five times a week just after 6:50 a.m.

At the moment, for the thousands of Lehigh Valley residents who commute daily into New York, by car or by the area’s only bus operator, there are no other options.

US-POLITICS-BIDEN-transport-rail (Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images)
US-POLITICS-BIDEN-transport-rail (Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images)

Biden, however, is looking to change that. As part of the billions he wants to spend on train projects, in his American Jobs Plan, he wants to improve service and “connect new city pairs” on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the network of commuter trains connecting hubs from Boston to Washington, D.C. That, according to Amtrak, Pennsylvania politicians and Biden himself, would aim to include the resumption of passenger train service connecting New York and Allentown, the third-largest city in Pennsylvania and the heart of the quickly growing Lehigh Valley.

But even if Congress passed the package, obstacles await, local lawmakers say. In the 60 years since passenger rail service connecting the area with New York was discontinued, bus service has reliably and more affordably filled the void. Experts and politicians note that it won’t just disappear.

Long-standing logistical challenges lay in wait. And even though the U.S. census shows Lehigh County, which encompasses Allentown, grew by 5.6 percent between 2010 and 2019, new work-from-home patterns stemming from the pandemic have disrupted the expectation that the growing population of New York workers would need to commute every day.

The biggest problem, however, is the question of whether sufficient rider demand exists to justify an expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars. While the number of commuters had been growing, it is still small, and the approximate ticket price for a daily trip could scare off prospective and existing ones, like Kennedy.

These challenges are emblematic of other Amtrak infrastructure projects that have — like this one — been discussed for decades. Most recently, then- President Barack Obama unveiled plans to boost Amtrak spending in 2011, and in 2016 an Amtrak executive arranged for a passenger train to make two trips between the two cities to drum up support for permanent service.

Still, some local politicians and power brokers feel the tide has changed for restoration of passenger train service between Allentown and New York. But more say the end result of this effort is not likely to be different.

“It comes down to the real cost of the project, both financial and logistics, and the current demand for passenger rail service to New York," said George Lewis, a vice president at the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation. "I don’t think it has met the test of being cost-justified, it’s just never reached a level where people here say, ‘OK, it seems to be worth the investment it would take.'"

Demand concerns

Passenger train service connecting Allentown and New York ended in 1961 after that section of the Lehigh Valley Railroad terminated amid the overall economic decline of the region.

In recent years, however, the Lehigh Valley has become the second-fastest growing region in Pennsylvania, according to census data. A broad revitalization effort fueled an economic boom, and attracted more residents of the New York metro area to relocate to cities such as Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, seeking a better quality of life within commuting distance of the city.

For these commuters, bus service has filled the gap. Trans-Bridge Lines, the only provider of regular commuter service, runs routes connecting the two cities. Commuting five days a week, both ways, costs $633.75 a month.

Train enthusiasts say an Amtrak line would further fuel growth of the area by providing a more comfortable ride, making the Lehigh Valley an even more attractive train destination.

“A number of people are already making that commute," said Matt Tuerk, a Democrat who upset the incumbent mayor and the city’s all-but-certain next leader. “A dedicated train line would open that world up to many more. If you want to live in the Lehigh Valley and work in N.Y.C., it usually means getting up at 4:00 a.m. to get on a bus that gets in at 7:00 a.m. It tends to wear people down. That changes significantly if it's a train.”

Critics, however, point to a 2010 study, commissioned by local leaders, that shows the project would have cost, even then, $658 million.

Analyses of census data show that only 6,000 Lehigh Valley residents were commuting daily to New York or northern New Jersey by bus or car, before the pandemic, but bus ridership statistics show a major decline due to Covid-19. According to Trans-Bridge, an average of only 324 passengers traveled between Allentown and New York during the first week in June, compared to 1,007 for the same week in 2019.

While it’s difficult to predict the price for such train service, a monthly commuter pass for Amtrak coach service to and from New York and Philadelphia which, like Allentown is about 95 miles from midtown, currently costs $960.

“You’re talking about hundreds of millions to provide that kind of service for, what, 6,000 commuters a day? And you need to consider the impact of remote work,” Lewis said. “The demand for the service is the deciding factor here.”

Critics say modernizing or expanding service won’t change that, even in areas like Allentown, where demand could theoretically be on the upswing. And unlike the enormous expenditures in Biden’s infrastructure plan for highways and bridges, the amounts for train travel would benefit only the thousands of people who were commuting daily before the pandemic.

“If you subsidize the train, anyone can afford it, but if you don’t, then what? Bus carriers provide outstanding service every day at a very affordable price. You have to really think, what’s the most affordable way,” said Peter Pantuso, the president and CEO of the American Bus Association, the largest bus trade group in the U.S. “You can put bus service anywhere, and as population densities shift, or as any other trends shift, which is the case in the rapidly changing Lehigh Valley, you can move it around. You can’t move a rail system around.”

Logistical challenges

Nevertheless, Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for $85 billion to “modernize” existing public transit and another $80 billion “to address Amtrak’s repair backlog; modernize the high-traffic Northeast Corridor; improve existing corridors and connect new city pairs." (A bipartisan compromise draft circulated this week reduced those amounts to $48 billion and $66 billion).

The Biden administration remains in negotiations with Republicans, and specific legislation or allocations haven't been determined yet. Biden, however, specifically mentioned restoring rail service between Allentown and New York during an April visit to Philadelphia.

In addition to the question of demand for an Allentown-New York line are numerous logistical challenges.

Chief among them is the fact that Norfolk Southern Railway, the freight train behemoth whose lines generate significant revenue for the region, owns nearly all of the tracks in the Lehigh Valley. Amtrak would have to pay to rent them — an arrangement the two companies have on several other lines, but a possibility Norfolk Southern has balked at in recent years. The company, however, signaled in a statement to NBC News it would be open to seeking “common ground and mutually beneficial plans” if infrastructure spending for passenger trains was passed.

But other advocates for the line said the government would have to build new modern, electric tracks anyway — which would raise the price tag and create new challenges like land acquisition.

“If the federal government decides they’re going to only commit a few hundred million to build stations and build a few new bells and whistles on top of the freight lines, they shouldn’t even bother,” Republican state Sen. Patrick Browne, whose district includes Allentown, said.

Those kind of hurdles are likely to disappoint Mark Greenberg, who commutes into midtown every morning, picking up the Trans-Bridge bus from Allentown at the Easton stop, near his house.

But Greenberg, a construction project manager who's been making the trip for years, said he also sees the writing on the wall.

"It would beat the bus," he said. "No traffic, more bathrooms ... but they've been talking about this for years. I guess I would say I'll believe it when I see it."

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