BY BORYS KRAWCZENIUK STAFF WRITER
December 26, 2022
The Lackawanna Cutoff in 2015, after New Jersey Transit reinstalled rails on concrete ties as part of a 7.3-mile project to connect its system to a new station planned for Andover, N.J.
The Lackawanna Cutoff in 2015. New Jersey Transit has started to restore more track to a 7.3-mile stretch of the cutoff in northern New Jersey. The rest of the 28-mile cutoff still needs track, signals and other railroad hardware, among other upgrades.
Before construction money flows and the passenger train rolls between Scranton and New York City, the paperwork will pile up and bureaucrats will weigh in.
Eager passenger train advocates received written instructions on beginning the paper trail Dec. 20.
The Federal Railroad Administration issued a notice asking for proposals for the Corridor Identification and Development Program. The railroad agency created the program in May.
“FRA has received extensive interest from states, local leaders and the public for intercity passenger rail service in their regions and communities, and the Corridor ID program will allow the federal government to help with the long-term planning and delivery of new passenger rail projects nationwide,” FRA Administrator Amit Bose said in a statement. “With President (Joe) Biden’s infrastructure investments, we have an opportunity to support new intercity passenger rail corridors and develop a national strategy to make rail transportation more available and reliable, boosting economies, growing jobs and creating new connections to move people and goods with ease.”
The deadline for submitting proposals is March 20 at 5 p.m. The agency will target projects that “bring tangible public benefits, and special emphasis will be paid to projects that benefit rural and underserved communities,” an FRA statement says. “Proposed corridors should make regional travel more sustainable and reduce congestion, boost local economies and create jobs, among other benefits.”
U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-8, Moosic, a key project champion said, “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, and preparing for. It’s an exciting time. It’s like we’re in a high stakes horse race and it’s time to go into the starting gate. We’re about to find out if years of hard work and preparation are going to pay off.”
Local officials think this project matches up well with the agency’s criteria, but attorney Larry Malski, president of the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, which covers Lackawanna and Monroe counties, said competition will be fierce.
“A lot of people are going to apply,” Malski said.
Those selected will likely receive guidance from a team of FRA staff and a leg up.
“If you get chosen as a corridor in the Corridor ID program … you are accorded statutory priority to receive (up to) the 80% funding, budgetary priority,” said John Blake, Cartwright’s district director. “It’s in the law. All we need to do is get the corridor approved” and the project will move ahead.
Blake said FRA is expected to decide by April or May. Then, the FRA team meetings will begin.
“They’ll tell you what, where, how one should be applying for, how you should be doing it, what you should be looking for, what are your next steps,” Malski said. “I mean, one of the big things we’ve got going for us — and we had this very general discussion with them is — we’ve got environmental work done already on this entire corridor.”
In 2006, New Jersey Transit, which is already restoring tracks on part of the route, produced an environmental assessment, one that gauges environmental effects on the 133-mile route. That will need updating, but it’s better than starting over, Malski said.
“So those are the little technicalities that are going to come up on the table that hopefully we’re going to have good answers for,” he said.
Amtrak, which has proposed potentially operating the train, is studying the Scranton-New York City corridor. That study should be ready in January, Malski said.
Blake said the Corridor ID application should be relatively easy.
“No hard lift, no binding commitments of funding, just an explanation of the corridor and data that could be shared with the FRA so they can discern whether or not the corridor in question is mature enough along in planning and knowledge, that they can say ‘Yes, you’re going to be one of our new corridors.’ It’s just a very, very early step in the process,” Blake said.
Blake said Cartwright is lobbying the state Department of Transportation to sign on as a sponsor of the local Corridor ID application.
“We could certainly have it (up and running) within five years, we might have it within four and under the best of circumstances, maybe three,” Blake said. “So they approve the corridor in May of ‘23, we could conceivably be up and running by May ‘26. But that’s aggressive.”
Over the years, one startup date after another has passed.
New Jersey Transit has begun design on restoring more track to a 7.3-mile stretch of the Lackawanna Cutoff in northern New Jersey. The rest of the 28-mile cutoff still needs track, signals and other railroad hardware, not to mention stations, engines to pull the train, passenger cars to pull, repairs to two major bridges and upgrades of existing Pennsylvania tracks.
Gov. Tom Wolf committed $3.7 million in funding to the local railroad authority in October to upgrade tracks from Scranton to the Poconos. Advocates consider that the most serious sign of state support so far.
The project has been estimated to cost as little as $288.9 million and as much as $551 million, but actual costs are likely to come in higher. If FRA commits, it could pay up to 80% of construction costs with New Jersey and Pennsylvania, presumably, coming up with the rest.