Pocono Record Story ~ February 14, 2010
By David Pierce
The oft-delayed Pocono commuter rail project has suffered another setback as federal officials
have passed it overfor funding from an $8 billion economic stimulus rail program.
The decision to sidetrack the Lackawanna Cutoff — a more than two-decade effort to restore passenger service
between the Poconos, central New Jersey and Manhattan — left Pennsylvania's congressional delegation scrambling
for alternative funding.
In Monroe County, the stops could include new train stations and parking facilities in Tobyhanna, rural Coolbaugh
Township, Analomink, East Stroudsburg and Delaware Water Gap. The rail line would link the Poconos with
connections to Manhattan.
The project has been used by local developers for years to promote the area to new residents — long-distance
commuters who bought Poconos homes. Some are skeptical the 81-mile project will ever be built, but one national rail
expert believes the proposal has merit.
Robert Puentes, a transportation analyst in the metropolitan studies program at Brookings Institution, a Washington,
D.C., think tank, believes the Lackawanna Cutoff remains a viable way to lessen vehicle congestion while providing
workers for the metropolitan area.
"In general, I think these are the right kind of investments we should be thinking about," Puentes said. He rejects the
proposition that local commuter rail will add to sprawling development. "A lot more depends on the local land use that
goes along with it," Puentes said.
Tough competition for the $8 billion in stimulus set aside for high-speed rail — a total of $56 billion was sought in
funding requests — shows there is strong public support for rail development, he said. "They have tapped into some
sort of latent enthusiasm that's taken some folks like myself by surprise," said Puentes.
Other Pennsylvania rail projects, including improvements to existing service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg,
received $26.4 million from the stimulus package. Other funded projects would link the country's major cities with
high-speed rail. The Federal Railroad Administration says the Lackawanna Cutoff wasn't the right fit for this program.
"It wasn't selected because the project is too far away for any jobs to be created immediately or construction to
begin," said FRA spokesman Robert Kulat. "In addition, it's a commuter project, and these grants were for high-speed
The Lackawanna Cutoff has been promoted as a traditional passenger line. But Kanjorski, a Democrat whose district
includes Monroe County, has increasingly embraced the high-speed rail concept, which would reduce travel times. A
Lackawanna Cutoff feasibility study estimated travel time between Manhattan and Scranton would be more than three
hours on a traditional line.
Non-high-speed trains — those propelled by diesel locomotives — would operate about 45 minutes apart during peak
hours at speeds up to 70 mph. The first train would leave Scranton at 4 a.m. and the last train of the day would return
there at 1 a.m., according a NJ Transit environmental assessment.
The overwhelming majority of eastbound passengers on the rail extension will come from Monroe County, according
to the study. There would be just 40 daily bookings from Scranton, and a trip from there to Hoboken would take 3
hours and 20 minutes.
Study forecasts put the number of daily eastbound boardings from Tobyhanna at 150 (2 hours and 43 minutes to
Hoboken), 1,040 from rural Coolbaugh Township (2 hours, 38 minutes), 250 from Analomink (2 hours and 12
minutes), 460 from East Stroudsburg (2 hours and 6 minutes), and 980 from Delaware Water Gap (1 hour and 58
Kanjorski promotes the idea that a metropolitan rail link would bring urban-oriented economic development to
northeastern Pennsylvania. Perhaps an international cargo airport could be located here, with rail used to move
European goods to New York, he said in an interview last year.
The Obama administration also sees international trade — coupled with improved transportation — as a key to
economic growth, says the Brookings' Puentes. "It's got to be an integrated conversation," Puentes said. "I think that's
the right way to think about these things."
The congressional delegation emphasized the local economic benefits of passenger service in their meeting with the
transportation secretary. Officials urged LaHood to find new funding for the project and to expedite delivery of $28
million awarded to the Lackawanna Cutoff last September. At least a portion of that money is for preconstruction
design and engineering.
"We had a frank discussion with the secretary about the importance of re-establishing passenger rail services in
northeastern Pennsylvania," Casey said. "State and federal partners need to come together on this project. I am
committed to working with local officials to advance this effort."
One commitment Pennsylvania's delegation received from LaHood was the promise to meet again this week. "The
next meeting, pending weather, will be a continuation of that discussion," Casey spokeswoman Stephanie Zarecky said.
"There are a number of avenues for funding. We are looking at them all. We are also looking at ways the state can
improve their application to be more competitive."
Kanjorski hopes the local rail project will qualify for another funding source — some of the $2.5 billion in high-speed
rail money included in this year's federal budget. "Though we face a bump in the road, my efforts to achieve this goal
will not falter," Kanjorski said.
The rail project achieved a major milestone last year with approval of an environmental impact statement. This
cleared the way for federal construction funding.
New Jersey Transit, lead agency for the bi-state effort, launched work last year on a seven-mile stretch of the line in
central New Jersey. When that is finished, just 21 miles of additional track will be needed to bring the line to the bridge
that spans the river to Delaware Water Gap.
Still, it will take more than $500 million to restore the Delaware River bridge, complete the line and establish
infrastructure for the rail stations. Pennsylvania and New Jersey will have to work out a joint approach for providing
local matching funds. A bi-state agency might be formed to expedite this process.
The most optimistic estimate is that passenger service is four or five years away. Others believe it could be a decade,
if ever, before commuter service arrives.
The Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, which represents Monroe and Lackawanna counties in the
passenger effort, owns most track right of way for the Pennsylvania portion. Its chairman, Bob Hay, believes the
congressional delegation's efforts will pay off. "I have confidence in them that they're doing everything they can to find
additional funding because they do support the project so well," Hay said.