Yesterday, I had the privilege of appearing as a guest on Business Matters, arguing in favor of bringing rail to the Lehigh Valley. It was an incredibly lively show that will air on November 24, 7:30 on WFMZ-TV.
I do strongly favor light rail, as long as its light rail done right. Right now, a transportation study is in the works to determine the feasibility of linking the NJ-Transit line to the Lehigh Valley and how much that would cost to construct. As proposed, the study would cost $250,000 - Lehigh and Northampton Counties are budgeting $75,000 each, with LVEDC picking up the remaining $100,000. Thus far, the study has been endorsed by Renew Lehigh Valley and the Lehigh Valley Association of Realtors, among others.
There are many reasons as to why we need rail. First, it will control development and reduce (if not eliminate) the need to widen Route 22. Where roads go, development and suburban sprawl follows. If you reduce the amount of roads built, you reduce the amount of suburban sprawl. This will create more incentives to redevelop our urban cores, not further develop and destroy our greenspace. Further, if rail stations are placed throughout a city (not just in the affluent areas, but downtown near office, retail and major tourist attractions like Coca Cola Stadium), you create more incentive for offices, retail and restaurants to move near those stations. If you do rail the right way, you can create major incentives for businesses to move to cities.
Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Lancaster are just some of the major regional areas that already have rail networks in the area. The United States is the only major developed country that does not have a rail system, and we are at risk of being left behind. The national average for gas is currently just under $3.00 per gallon, and that is going to rise once this economic crises ends. The cost of building new roads and the materials related to those roads has skyrocketed, with the cost of some items (such as asphalt) doubling. Pennsylvania is one of the national leaders in structurally deficient bridges. Pennsylvania needs an estimated $1.6 billion to repair our roads and bridges. Nationwide, that need is over $1.6 trillion in the next five years. We can, quite literally, no longer afford our current transportation system.
Rail will help more than just urban residents. Ron Angle asked a very good question on our show: what will this do for the retired couple that lives in Pen Argyl, Hellertown or Lower Macungie? How will rail help them?
Well, does this retired couple pay taxes? Because they will benefit from reduced taxes thanks to controlled sprawl and less funding for road and bridge construction and maintenance. They will benefit from the improved quality of life that comes with more open space. And they will be able to travel anywhere in the East Coast via rail, thanks to being connected to the regional rail network.
As far as I can tell, rail is the future of the Lehigh Valley. It is best for our cities, suburbs and the entire region. Of course, what we need more than anything else is the data to back up the theory. I am eagerly awaiting the results of the upcoming transportation study.
For more information on bringing rail to the Valley, visit Lehigh Valley Trains.
PLEASE NOTE: I am speaking here only in my capacity as someone who works with urban communities, not on behalf of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. The GLVCC has not taken an official position on bringing rail to the Valley.