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Funding cuts jeopardize Amtrak service, PennDOT official says

Joe Napsha
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Amtrak train service to Pittsburgh, shown in this file photo, and the rest of Pennsylvania is subsidized by the state. That could be in jeopardy when the $450 million payment the Pennsylvania Turnpike makes to PennDOT each year drops to $50 million in 2022, state transportation officials said. Passengers exit an Amtrak train in Pittsburgh after coming from Philadelphia Monday, August 26, 2013.

The state’s Amtrak passenger rail service will be impacted when the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s $450 million annual payment to PennDOT plunges by $400 million three years from now, a PennDOT official warned Thursday.

“Amtrak service is in jeopardy, as we know it today,” even without the pending funding crisis, Jennie Granger, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for multimodal transportation, told about 110 business and government officials at the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Westmoreland Country Club in Penn Township.

The state is paying about $16 million a year to subsidize the Amtrak service, Granger said.

PennDOT is required under federal law to cover the operating costs of Amtrak’s Keystone service — Harrisburg-to-Philadelphia-to-New York — and the Pennsylvanian service, which runs between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Half of those operating costs are funded through Act 44, which requires the turnpike to allocate the $450 million to PennDOT for mass transit until 2022, when the allocation drops to $50 million, said Alexis Campbell, PennDOT spokeswoman.

Pennsylvania is caught between maintaining the existing service in the event the turnpike commission’s annual allotment is not replaced by another funding source and demands for more than one eastbound train daily between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and one westbound train from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, Granger said. That’s a far cry from 1952, when there were 20 roundtrip passenger trains traveling daily between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Granger said.

Amtrak said it continues to work with PennDOT “in addressing the challenges of passenger rail in Pennsylvania,” said Beth Toll, an Amtrak spokeswoman.

Ridership in the state — boarding and departing — has increased from 6 million in 2012 to 6.5 million in 2018, according to the Rail Passengers Association in Washington, D.C. An additional 5 million riders passed through the state on Amtrak, the association stated.

Ridership on the Keystone train from Harrisburg to New York City was 1.5 million from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018, while the Pennsylvanian, which operates between Pittsburgh and New York City, had 214,827 riders in the same period, Amtrak said.

State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, asked about increasing rail service between Westmoreland County and Pittsburgh, which would help commuters going to Pittsburgh and businesses in the area. The two stops in Westmoreland County — Greensburg and Latrobe — had ridership levels of 12,640 and 4,068, respectively, in 2018, according to the Rail Passengers Association.

“From 2013 to now, the consistent message from Western Pennsylvania is, ‘We want more passenger service,’” said Granger, who noted a study is under way to look at increasing service between Pittsburgh and Altoona. The state also is looking into the possibility of a private company offering rail service along the same corridor, Granger said.

Norfolk Southern Corp. owns the tracks between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, and Amtrak must reach an agreement on increasing passenger rail service along a busy freight corridor, Granger said. The state would have to pay possibly $300,000 for a study to look at the impact increasing passenger trains from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg would have on freight traffic.

PennDOT, however, can’t pay Norfolk Southern because “we are in the middle of a funding crisis,” Granger said.

The Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, part of the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition, said the organization has been urging legislators to create a funding mechanism that would replace the revenue stream from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, said Mark Spada, president of the Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail..

Spada said they are “very much aware” that the revenue from the turnpike will drop by $400 million in 2022.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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