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Scranton to NYC train service could give big boost to area economy

For those of us who have memory banks going back to the 1940s and ’50s, we can recall how commonplace rail passenger trains were in our area.

I can remember my father driving me from my hometown of Summit Hill to Jim Thorpe, where we picked up my mom’s friend, Rosie, who had come by train from Bethlehem to spend a week with us.

Even later, in 1968, I recall that my wife and I, as part of our nightly ritual, would drive our oldest son, Stephen, just 4 years old at the time, to the East Stroudsburg railroad station from our home several miles away so he could see the Erie-Lackawanna passenger train fly into the station at 9:37 p.m. Usually, there were only two or three passengers visible and rarely would anyone board at East Stroudsburg.

The stop was momentary, and the train would take off on the rest of its journey to Scranton. On the trip home, Stephen fell asleep, content that he had seen the “choo-choo,” and I would carry him to his bed. Two years later, passenger service to the Poconos and the rest of Northeast Pennsylvania ended, and the area from Scranton to New York City has been without passenger rail connection for more than 50 years.

Based on recent events, this might change.

An economic impact analysis by Amtrak finds that proposed passenger service between Scranton and New York would generate $87 million in annual economic activity and nearly $3 billion from one-time investments.

This disclosure, coming as it does at a time when Amtrak suddenly seems to be on board with such an eventual undertaking, is nothing short of stunning and has area leaders and city commuters who live in our region salivating.

As recently as three years ago, Amtrak executives were basically saying that there was zero chance of reviving passenger service between the two points, because it would involve using rail lines for freight, which is much more profitable financially than passenger service. It’s not clear why there was this 180-degree change of heart. Certainly, the results of the impact study caused these Amtrak executives to take notice of how lucrative such an undertaking might be.

The results are based on three round trips daily with each to take about 3½ hours each way. All of the proposed stations would be new to Amtrak except for New York’s Penn Station.

If this all came about, the train would go from Scranton to Monroe County points at Tobyhanna, Mount Pocono and East Stroudsburg, then across the Delaware River at the Delaware Water Gap to make stops at Blairstown in Warren County, Dover and Morristown in Morris County, Summit in Union County and Newark in Essex County, all in New Jersey, before arriving at Penn Station.

The study holds out the potential that there is widespread demand for such service, especially from tens of thousands of daily commuters, from those who want to visit the city for a one-day or weekend getaway and dozens of colleges and universities along the corridor, including East Stroudsburg University and the universities and colleges in the Scranton area.

This line also would connect at New York with other Amtrak services throughout the Eastern United States.

If any of you have visited New York City by motor vehicle in recent years, I don’t have to describe the chokepoints that motorists encounter through the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and the George Washington Bridge.

The Scranton to New York City link is just one of nearly 40 new passenger rail proposals in an Amtrak report that would rely on $75 billion in federal funds over a 15-year period.

A few weeks ago, Gov. Tom Wolf and state and local officials joined a virtual meeting to discuss the plans. If all of the proposals were realized, it would bring rail service to 160 new communities throughout the Northeast, including the three roundtrips between Scranton and New York City. According to Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti, this is a 100-year plan, adding, this is how we need to be thinking.”

The proposal also includes two daily round trips between Allentown and New York City.

According to U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, whose district includes parts of Monroe, Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, whether this proposal materializes first depends on passage of the infrastructure plan that has been a keystone of Joe Biden’s major objectives for his presidency.

Passage of the $1 trillion infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $66 billion to fund rail transportation projects, but the bill has not yet passed the House where progressive and moderate Democrats are duking it out over whether to go along with the reduced Senate plan or to initiate the budget reconciliation process to pass a much larger $3.5 trillion spending proposal that includes other facets of Biden’s agenda.

Far be it from me to throw a wet rag on all of this optimism, but we have had these flashes of woulda-couldas before. After all, Northeastern Pennsylvania residents have been waiting for train service to the city for more than a generation, and nothing concrete has happened, so list me as a skeptic - a hopeful one, to be sure - until I see some real movement in the direction of making such an exciting eventuality come to pass.

Even if it does, it is going to take time, an intense resolve to keep it on track and lots and lots of money.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.