Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bethlehem City Council Prez says support Light Rail

Bethlehem City Council President Michael Schweder on Monday called for transportation officials to scrap plans for the more than $776 million widening of Route 22 and put the money toward passenger rail service to New Jersey.

Schweder said the Lehigh Valley had to do its part to alleviate congestion while keeping in mind the extra emissions a 19-mile widening of Route 22 could produce.

He suggested four things needed to happen: building a rail line that would run through the three cities; finding ways to encourage commuters to leave their cars for mass transit; expanding public and private bus services to take people to the rail line; and increasing those services as the need grows.

Although business leaders and transportation experts say a rail system would be expensive and do little to relieve congestion, Schweder said it is time regional planners consider that wider roads may not be the answer to the region's future.

''I did not support the widening of Route 22 30 years ago [before Interstate 78 was built], and I do not support it now for the same reasons,'' Schweder said at a news conference on the second floor of the Bethlehem Area Public Library. ''We owe this to our environment. We owe this to our children.''

The proposal conflicts with a 2002 Lehigh Valley Planning Commission study that concluded widening Route 22 was the best way to fix highway congestion in the Valley. While elected leaders such as Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan and state Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton, have voiced support for the concept of rail, this is the first time someone other than a passenger train advocate has made a public plea to scrap the widening and enlarge public transit.

Easton City Council President Sandra Vulcano issued a news release in support of Schweder's announcement. Schweder's news release indicated Allentown City Council President David Howells Sr. is supportive; however, Howells did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Schweder does not have cost estimates for a rail line nor a timeline. His next step, he said, would be to meet with the U.S. senators from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he already planned to have a discussion with Democratic Sen.-elect Bob Casey Jr. on a proposed railroad line between Scranton and New York City.

Since regular passenger trains to New York City left the Valley in 1961, there has been talk periodically of resurrecting the service. Freeman wrote a 1981 study advocating regional rail service that would run like trolleys through city streets and on their own through outlying areas.

''Every year a group proposes restoring light rail service to the Lehigh Valley and it never flies because of low usage and high cost,'' said Bruce Davis, an organizer of the Route 22 Coalition who is lobbying for money for the Route 22 project. But Davis also said the figure for the 19-mile Route 22 widening — from Route 33 to I-78 — is now closer to $900 million.

Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, an advocate for rail service to New Jersey, said it is good that local officials are coming together, but it will be an uphill battle.

''It is going to take a tremendous political will at the state and federal levels to come up with the resources to make that happen,'' Callahan said. ''That's a big hurdle.''

Michael Kaiser, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, sees passenger rail and Route 22 as separate issues. Light rail was rejected in favor of widening because it would be more expensive — one study pegged it at more than $1.5 billion — and would not take enough cars off the Lehigh Valley's portion of Route 22, which carries a lot of local traffic.

Studies show that passenger rail service would carry 3,000 passengers on a given day. Kaiser said 95,000 vehicles pass between the Route 22 intersections at Seventh Street and Airport Road on an average day.

Kaiser said his organization is working with counterparts in New Jersey about congestion issues on I-78, which is a bigger problem in New Jersey. The solutions include widening the road, park-and-ride lots and extending light rail. However, it is not certain rail will be among the recommendations.

This new public support of a light rail system should be good news to young professionals, who along with Renew Lehigh Valley, have made it one of the highest priority goals, and have identified it as key to the redevelopment of the area.

Click here to sign the petition for a light rail system in the Lehigh Valley.

If you are a young professional, show your support for the rail system by saying thank you to the officials who are for a light rail system:
  • Contact Bethlehem City Council President Michael Schweder at (610) 865-7130 or cityclerk@bethlehem-pa.gov
  • Contact Easton City Council President Sandra Vulcano at (610) 250-6730 or 6731 or cityhall@easton-pa.gov
  • Contact Bethlehem City Mayor John Callahan at (610) 865-7100 or callajohb@bethlehem-pa.gov
  • Contact Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton
More here.

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