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Money to expand rail service between Pittsburgh, Harrisburg not yet available

| Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, 2:30 p.m.

Just about everyone wants better passenger rail service from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg and beyond, but no one knows how to pay for it.

That was the takeaway from a state House Transportation Committee hearing held Tuesday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Local government officials and advocacy groups proposed expanding Pittsburgh-to-New York City passenger service through Harrisburg from one to three trains daily. But committee Chairman John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, said they need to pressure their legislators to back any funding plans that could make the expansion possible.

“Eventually, it will come down to how are we going to fund it,” Taylor said.

No funding proposals were discussed, and cost estimates were offered only in vague terms.

A Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership study referenced by several speakers put the expansion's annual operating cost at between $10.4 million and $12.8 million annually, including 30-year debt service on capital costs that could range between $37.4 million and $74.9 million.

Rudy Husband, resident vice president of government affairs of Norfolk Southern Railway, said those estimates failed to account for capacity upgrades that his company's tracks likely would require to accommodate added passenger rail traffic.

He said any passenger rail service growth on Norfolk Southern lines will first require an extensive operations feasibility study to determine, among other things, how more passenger trains would affect the railroad's freight operations.

“These studies, they're not cheap, and they take time,” Husband said. “At least a year, maybe more.”

For now, PennDOT and passenger rail operator Amtrak are working to develop a more comprehensive cost estimate. Ray Lang, Amtrak's Midwest senior director for state government relations, said officials hope to get a cost estimate to state lawmakers by the end of the year.

Passenger rail expansion advocates who spoke at the hearing cited decreased highway bridge and maintenance costs, improved air quality and better transportation options for seniors and students among the benefits of their proposal.

The Downtown Partnership estimates ridership would grow from 232,000 passengers annually to more than 414,000 if the expansion plan succeeds.

Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5627 or mwalton@tribweb.com.

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