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Amtrak route's reprieve a relief to W.Pa. riders

| Tuesday, March 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Sherry Bolha of Unity took her 15-year-old son, Bradley, on his first train trip last week — an educational experience to New York City.

What made the trip easier and convenient for Bolha was that she boarded Amtrak's Pennsylvanian line close to home in Latrobe.

“I love to ride the train,” Bolha said, who recalled that her father, whose poor eyesight did not allow him to drive, used to ride the train to Lewistown to the Beacon Lodge Camp for the blind.

A frequent train rider, Klaudia Long of Latrobe, a freshman at Barnard College in Manhattan, said she also liked the convenience of taking the train from the Latrobe station to New York City.

“You can't get a seat on that train” because it's so popular, said Long.

Travelers such as Long and Bolha will be able to continue to enjoy the convenience of boarding the train in Latrobe and traveling to Pittsburgh and Chicago or to Harrisburg and Philadelphia now that the Pennsylvanian route, which was in danger of being discontinued, has been saved by the state.

“I'm very excited,” said Long, who planned to ride the train back to New York City once her spring break ended last weekend.

Gov. Tom Corbett announced last week that the state reached an agreement with Amtrak on a new funding plan to maintain the daily passenger service between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which will cost the state $3.8 million rather than $6.5 million as previously estimated.

“I applaud Amtrak for its willingness to work with my administration on a funding plan that makes sense for Pennsylvania in these difficult economic times and maintains this passenger rail service that provides important connections for many towns in western Pennsylvania,” Corbett said in a statement.

The service, which the state restored in the early 1980s after working with Amtrak, is subject to a new funding agreement that requires the federal passenger rail service to recover more costs than previously.

The lower funding level falls within the capabilities of the Corbett administration's transportation plan and maintains service west of Harrisburg, with stops in Lewistown, Huntingdon, Tyrone, Altoona, Johnstown, Latrobe, Greensburg and finally Pittsburgh, the governor's office said.

Corbett said the state General Assembly must act this spring “to advance my transportation plan, so we can meet this funding need.”

The governor's Multimodal Transportation Fund would appropriate about $80 million over several years to assist with railways and other transportation projects.

The future of passenger rail service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg was up in the air because federal law had eliminated funding for railroad lines of less than 750 miles.

Even if the state was able to save the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg train route with less money than originally estimated, “it's really a heavy subsidy,” said Jake Haulk, an economist and president of Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon, a conservative think tank.

A 4 12-hour train trip between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg will not attract sufficient riders to make money when a bus trip between the two cities is quicker and less costly, Haulk said.

“I don't understand why they feel the need to continue the subsidy,” Haulk said. The subsidy per rider is about the same, even if the state's contribution drops, he noted.

Haulk suspects that Corbett engineered the subsidy deal for reasons other than economics.

“Economically, it's a loser. Politically, it's not a loser,” Haulk said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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