Local rail not a far-fetched vision
People spilled into the hallways from the Hotel Bethlehem's Terrace Room as a larger than expected crowd came to listen and comment on passenger rails in the Lehigh Valley.
Renew Lehigh Valley and the Network of Young Professionals had guest speakers-Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution and Senator Rob Wonderling-come and talk about the issue that had been previously addressed as a major concern of people in the Lehigh Valley. Both groups held a forum in March 2006 to ascertain the issues important to young professionals in the region. Affordable housing and open space preservation were two key issues, but by a dramatic three-to-one margin, 93 percent expressed concerned about passenger rail in the Lehigh Valley.
Renew Lehigh Valley holds the loss of young professionals as one of their key concerns, and stress on its Web site that Pa. lost more young workers than any other state between 1995 and 2000.
Network of Young Professionals President Abraham Nemitz expressed his enthusiasm and faith in rails as a way to promote growth and draw back in the missing youth.
"It's an exciting thing to focus on because the research, both theoretical and in practice, shows that every community that has deployed new rail systems in the last 10 years has seen their ridership forecasts exceeded," Nemitz said, "and more importantly, has seen tremendous development near the stations."
Nemitz called rails a key in helping commuters headed to nearby cities.
"One of the biggest things that can be done to help them and to help their quality of life, is having a fast train service to New York City and Philadelphia to make their commutes more tolerable," he said.
Renew Lehigh Valley has also held forums on housing and open space that organization co-chair Joyce Marin found quite successful.
"It's important for us to focus on the issues, learn more and educate the public," said Marin.
Puentes talked about the pros and cons of rail transportation, examining the options for the Lehigh Valley. Puentes cited thriving communities outside Chicago and Boston that have been revitalized after implementation of passenger rail systems.
Puentes called passenger rails a "transformative investment," but also stressed that it is only one piece of the puzzle in making a community thrive.
Wonderling, who has been working for the past few years to help restore passenger rail service to the Quakertown area, shared his experiences with the process.
He gave an estimated time frame of 2010 to 2012 for having the Quakertown line running, but emphasized the difference between that and the original estimates of a 2020 completion.
Marin was pleased with the turnout that nearly tripled the amount of seats available, and stressed that it is ultimately up to the people if they want to see action take place, "the more people who talk about this with their neighbors, their local elected officials, their state representatives, the more likely it is to happen."
The casino development of Southside Bethlehem may help the rail cause. While Marin stressed that Renew Lehigh Valley has yet to take a position on casinos coming to the area, she did call the casinos "the kind of development that this type of transportation investment also supports."
Marin speculated that casinos may mean for rails could come more rapidly to the area.
"Might it [passenger rail] happen more spontaneously? Possibly," she said.
Renew Lehigh Valley has one more forum in their current series that is yet to be scheduled. It will address entertainment concerns in the Valley. The date and location are yet to be named.
For more information on the Network of Young Professionals and Renew Lehigh Valley, visit their Web sites at www.netyp.org and www.renwlv.org.