NET and RenewLV co-sponsored a very well attend forum on passenger rail last night. Over 200 people packed Hotel Bethlehem to hear a representative from the Brookings Institution speak, as well as Sen. Rob Wonderling.
Morning Call reports:
Young professionals, students, elected officials, representatives from local bus companies and retirees came to hear Robert Puentes, a transportation expert from the Brookings Institution, who said, ''It's not hyperbole to say there is a rail transit renaissance going on across the country today.''
Rail service is gaining in popularity because the face of America is changing, he said. Retirees, childless couples and immigrants want more of a range of housing options than can typically be found in suburban single-family residential developments. They increasingly want neighborhoods that combine commercial and residential construction. (Not to mention young professionals want this as well.)
Puentes talked about current rail initiatives across the country that include light rail, monorail, subway and trolleys.
He said passenger rail service ''is not a silver bullet,'' but combined with other changes to land use planning, it can help areas thrive.
RenewLV believes connecting Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton to each other and to Philadelphia and New York by rail could bolster the Valley's aging cities by concentrating development, and preserve open space. (Rail service tends to concentrate population that is already there.)
But the event's organizers said the strong attendance shows a lot of interest. RenewLV's co-chairwoman, Emmaus Borough Councilwoman Joyce Marin, said it's likely a coalition of groups that support passenger rail will form.
The issue has come to the forefront as officials from Bucks and Montgomery counties study whether to restore rail from Philadelphia to the Quakertown area, and eventually up to Center Valley. New Jersey is examining whether it would be viable to extend the state's train service to Phillipsburg.
State Sen. Rob Wonderling, R-Montgomery, who spoke at the forum, has been involved with the efforts to extend passenger service from the Lehigh Valley to Philadelphia. He said the Valley can't depend entirely on the public sector to revive passenger rail service here. He is working to attract private investment.
Separately, some people have proposed building a light rail service between Phillipsburg and Allentown.
RenewLV is a coalition of local organizations and individuals formed after the Brookings Institution issued its report on Pennsylvania in 2003. The 120-page report said suburban sprawl is killing many of the cities here, and the state faces a severe brain drain because young professionals are graduating from Pennsylvania colleges but fleeing the state for jobs elsewhere.
The rail forum sprang from an informal poll by RenewLV to find out how young people (that's us) thought the Valley could be improved. The top suggestion was restoring passenger rail service.
As the Valley's population has grown and roads have become more crowded, questions about mass transit have resurfaced. Officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for example, are jointly looking at ways to ease congestion on Interstate 78. The amount of traffic on I-78 near the Lehigh Valley has increased more than 30 percent since 2000, and is up 66 percent over the past 10 years.
The North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, which is overseeing a study of I-78 traffic, doesn't favor adding lanes to the road. One phase of the study will look at extending one of the NJ Transit rail lines to Phillipsburg. That would allow Valley residents to take a train from Phillipsburg to Newark, N.J., where they could get another train to New York. New Jersey officials say most of the track is in place all the way to Phillipsburg.
Officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been cooperating on a joint plan to restore service from New York's Penn Station through northern New Jersey into the Poconos and to Scranton.
Efforts to restore the line have gained momentum and political support in recent years, largely because of Monroe County's population growth, which has helped fuel daily congestion on Interstate 80 in New Jersey.
So the big question remains what can I do?
Well, first and foremost tell your officials–city, county, state, and federal–that you support rail service as part of a greater transportation solution in the Lehigh Valley.
Secondly, sign the petition to show your support. By showing officials that you are interested in the rail system, they will be much more likely to vote for means to support it, and hopefully the seed money needed for people like Sen. Wonderling, and Rep. Freeman to attract more private funding - a key for the rail system to come to fruition.
Also, remain active in groups like the Network of Young Professionals and RenewLV so you can be part of the conversation.