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May 24, 2016

Biden's infrastructure plan includes Amtrak funding that could revive passenger service in Pennsylvania

Passenger rail proposal features new routes from Philly to Reading, Allentown to NYC

Transportation Amtrak
Amtrak Biden Infrastructure Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Under President Joe Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill, Amtrak would receive $80 billion toward improvements to its Northeast Corridor passenger rail network. The bill has renewed hope for the return of direct service in parts of Pennsylvania where it has been gone for decades.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled a massive $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that aims to create millions of jobs, including $80 billion in projects to repair and modernize Amtrak's Northeast Corridor passenger rail service.

The plan would invest about 1% of U.S. GDP per yer over an eight-year timeframe, addressing needs across the country's highways, bridges, ports, transit systems, airports, public schools, community colleges and public housing.

Funding for the White House proposal would largely come from an increase in the corporate tax rate and closure of tax loopholes.

In conjunction with the president's announcement in Pittsburgh, Amtrak released its 2035 Vision plan — detailing a range of goals, from job creation and lowering carbon emissions to the addition of up to 30 potential new routes.

A map released by the national passenger rail service includes proposed new routes — light blue lines — that would run from Philadelphia to Reading, from Allentown to New York City and from Scranton to New York City.

Amtrak 2035 MapCourtesy/Amtrak

The orange lines running along the Northeast Corridor and from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh designate routes that Amtrak hopes to enhance.

"President Biden’s infrastructure plan is what this nation has been waiting for," said Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn. "Amtrak must rebuild and improve the Northeast Corridor, our national network and expand our service to more of America. The NEC’s many major tunnels and bridges – most of which are over a century old – must be replaced and upgraded to avoid devastating consequences for our transportation network and the country. In addition, Amtrak has a bold vision to bring energy-efficient, world-class intercity rail service to up to 160 new communities across the nation, as we also invest in our fleet and stations across the U.S."

Amtrak's 444-mile Pennsylvanian line runs west from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and north from Philly through Newark, New Jersey and on to New York City. The 349-mile Keystone Corridor runs west from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, and then on to Pittsburgh using tracks owned by Norfolk Southern.

Direct passenger rail connections to and from Pennsylvania's northeast counties have been defunct for four decades, but existing momentum among local advocates may be spurred by Biden's plan and Amtrak's vision.

Though there are plenty of viable railroad tracks in the region, most of them are freight lines owned by Norfolk Southern. 

A proposed line from Philadelphia to Reading would use a combination of Norfolk Southern and SEPTA tracks. The plan is supported by PennDOT and backed by the Berks Alliance community group, but has not yet won the support of the track owners.

Passenger service from Allentown to New York City hasn't existed since 1961. There has been growing local support to restore a round-trip line, but advocates have faced many of the same hurdles for approval and cooperation from Norfolk Southern for the use of its tracks, which generate significant freight revenue.

Amtrak's Vision 2035 fact sheet strongly suggests that Biden's plan will give the rail service power to make more executive decisions about intercity rail routes.

"We have rights to access all existing rail lines for passenger trains," Amtrak claims in its plan.

Allentown Mayor Ray O'Connell told The Morning Call he believes Biden's proposal could make passenger rail efforts more achievable.

"Significant hurdles that have developed over the last 60 years stand in the way," O’Connell said. "President Biden’s infrastructure plan’s investment in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line could eliminate a lot of those hurdles. I look forward to the passing of the legislation and seeing what it can do to bring about the resumption of passenger rail service in the area."

Passage of Biden's bill likely will face a steep uphill battle in Congress. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell already has signaled that Republicans plan to vigorously fight the infrastructure bill, meaning Democrats would potentially need to use the same budget reconciliation process that led to the recent passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Biden said Wednesday that he'll aim for a bipartisan bill, but plans to push forward if Republicans dig in their heels.

"We’ll have a good-faith negotiation with any Republican who wants to help get this done," Biden said. "But we have to get it done."