Next stop, Scranton? Biden’s infrastructure plan could make it happen

US President Joe Biden holds infrastructure meeting with key Congressional leaders, Parliamentary Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, United States, May 12, 2021. REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque

At first glance, the Northern New Jersey Path looks like another trail in the woods. But train enthusiasts know better; the Lackawanna cut is key to a project to restore rail service between New York and Scranton, Pa. – the hometown of President Joe Biden.

Biden’s massive infrastructure proposal contains $ 80 billion in new spending on high-speed rail projects, including up to 39 new Amtrak passenger routes and connections to up to 166 cities by 2035.

One suggested route would be from New York to Scranton, the northeastern Pennsylvania town where Biden was born and where he lived until the age of 10.

This is where the Lackawanna Cutoff comes in. Built between 1909 and 1911 by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, it provided a fast way for trains to travel from New York to Scranton and Buffalo, New York. For a few years, travelers could continue west to Chicago.

“It was considered a technical triumph when it was built,” said Chuck Walsh, who has walked the trail for more than 35 years.

Walsh, president of the North Jersey Rail Commuter organization, has spent years trying to restore passenger rail service on the abandoned line.

Miles of great mounds of earth, called “infills,” and huge concrete structures like the Paulinskill Viaduct in Columbia, New Jersey, are testament to the monumental investment and effort it took to build it.

But in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the United States increasingly turned to cars for transportation, rail service declined. Many railways have closed and some rail lines have been abandoned. The same fate befell the cut.

Passenger train service on the line ended in 1970, and freight traffic lasted a few more years. By 1979, the entire length of the 28-1 / 2 mile (46 km) cutoff had been taken out of service and the rails were quickly torn off.

The passenger rail restoration campaign has progressed. In 2001, the State of New Jersey bought the cutoff from private promoters. Ten years later, New Jersey Transit began work on the eastern end of the cutoff, establishing seven mile (11 km) sections of track. Recently, however, progress has stalled.

Enter Biden.

Long a supporter of Amtrak and passenger rail, the Democratic president in March announced a major expansion plan for Amtrak as part of his infrastructure proposal.

In Scranton, the announcement received a warm welcome.

“We knew what we had lost,” said recently Larry Malski, who took the last passenger train from Scranton to New York in 1970. Malski is chairman of the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, which manages the Pennsylvania section of the track that the Scranton Amtrak Corridor would operate. The authority also operates the lines used by freight providers in the region.

“Scranton was built on coal, railroads, steel,” Malski said. “And the railways, unfortunately, are almost gone. We saved what we could and we saved a lot of what was here, thank goodness because now it’s vibrant and our freight industry is booming. But we have to bring the passenger train back.

Prospects of bringing Amtrak service to Scranton and other cities in the U.S. Corridor now depend on negotiations between the Biden administration and Congressional Republicans over how much money to spend on infrastructure and how to pay for it.

On Tuesday, Biden broke off talks with a key Republican, addressing a bipartisan group instead, after one-on-one talks with West Virginia Senator Shelley Capito were described as hitting a “brick wall “. Read more

Lawmakers said on Wednesday that the bipartisan group was discussing whether to revitalize infrastructure without raising taxes, as proposed by Biden. Read more

Paul Lewis, vice president of the nonprofit ENO Center for Transportation in Washington, said bringing rail service to Scranton and elsewhere will depend on local support as well as negotiations in Washington.

In Scranton, the business community is supporting the project, according to the president of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, Bob Durkin.

“We believe if this happens it will be of huge benefit” to the community, its businesses and its residents, ”Durkin said. “And we think it will work.”

Rail authority chief Malski said a lot of work has already been done to prepare for the service, including the start of rail laying by New Jersey Transit and the construction of a new terminal in Scranton to provide buses and other transport links to the site where the new passenger rail terminal would be built.

With a focus on car and air transportation, investing in rail has been a tough sell in the United States for the past few decades. But Malski said a real investment in rail passenger transport in the United States, like that in Europe, Japan and, more recently, China, is “long overdue.”

“We need to regain our importance as a nation of rail passengers,” Malski said.

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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