All aboard for passenger rail service!

Lamont McClure, Northampton County Executive //July 27, 2022

All aboard for passenger rail service!

Lamont McClure, Northampton County Executive //July 27, 2022

As a famous philosopher once said, “The only thing constant in life is change.” Change isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it is inevitable and you’re more likely to be successful at navigating it if you prepare.  

Those of us in government do not have the luxury of just living in the present; one eye must always be kept on the future in an effort to anticipate the needs of impending generations. And one of those needs will definitely be more efficient and less polluting transportation options.  

With the steady economic growth in our area, I believe passenger rail service is something the Lehigh Valley will need in the decades to come. The option of traveling by train is a popular one for both commuters and tourists and, right now, the Federal Railroad Administration is soliciting “expressions of interest” from state and local governments for new routes. The Lehigh Valley needs to raise its hand and get on that list. 

The population in Northampton County continues to expand at a consistent rate, increasing 5.1% between the 2010 and 2020 Census, with a steady addition of new residents forecasted in coming years. Increases in population come with an escalation in traffic. Just jump on Route 22 some afternoon during rush hour and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Plans for widening Route 22 and 78 have been proposed, but it’s doubtful that an additional lane will solve the problem. More efficient public transportation is a better bet. Not everyone can or wants to own a car. Sometimes the cost of buying, maintaining and insuring a vehicle is the issue. Sometimes it’s a question of finding a place to park.  

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can imagine a future where Americans hang up the car keys and demand better transportation options. 

Passenger rail service from Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton to New York City was proposed back in 2015. Last year, on a visit to Scranton, President Biden spoke about linking Allentown to NYC via Amtrak.  

Trains are recognized as one of the most efficient means of transport for both freight and passengers. With their higher occupancy potential and lower energy consumption, trains are three times more efficient than a car. Expanding the use of trains should lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Adding rail services to Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York would decrease the traffic on Lehigh Valley roads, make travel easier for commuters and improve our air quality. 

Forming a new authority to initiate and study the project is not necessary. The Lehigh Valley Transportation System (LVTS) is already in place and could handle the planning and implementation of passenger rail. 

While I believe this project would greatly benefit Northampton County, I’m also aware that there are drawbacks. Competition for funding will be fierce. Public transportation projects are popular with commuters looking for travel alternatives and with businesses because they fuel economic growth. The Lehigh Valley will need to make a strong case to win approval. The investments required will involve both money and time. The money will be measured in billions of dollars and the time will be measured in decades.  

Investments in passenger rail may cost us in funding for other kinds of infrastructure such as roads and bridges, so there is a lot to consider. However, we are facing a unique opportunity to invest in a cleaner, safer and more efficient future and I think we should take it. As Will Rogers once said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”  

The future is coming and the only thing we can be sure about is that it will be different from the conditions we are living with right now. The Federal Railroad Administration is presenting us with an opportunity to improve our lives and boost our economy. Nothing is more expensive than a wasted opportunity. I vote for not letting this one pass us by. 

Lamont McClure is Northampton County Executive