Del. airport train plan progresses but hurdles remain

A plan to give Delawareans direct train service to Philadelphia International Airport moved a step closer to fruition after federal officials included the proposal in its list of recommended rail upgrades for the Northeast Corridor.

The blueprint – which would need a financial commitment from state or local governments – calls for a passenger rail loop to extend from the Chester, Pennsylvania, area to the airport, and then north to University City, Philadelphia, where it would reconnect with mainline tracks.

“It would allow people in Wilmington to get on an Amtrak train and go straight to Philadelphia’s airport without having to go through Philadelphia’s 30th Street station,” said Matthew Lehner, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Federal officials for four years have studied how best to accommodate growing demand for passenger rail service in the Northeast at the request of states in the region, Lehner said. The announced recommendations, which carry a cost of $120 billion over 30 years, was the culmination of that work.

In addition to the airport rail loop, recommended projects include the construction of additional tracks along the majority of the corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., to create a four-track system, as well as $40 billion of general maintenance

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The proposed upgrades would shorten train travel times between New York City and Washington, D.C., by 35 minutes to 2 hours and 10 minutes.

"But the first thing and the most important thing is to bring the corridor back to good condition," Lehner said.

Eight regional passenger rail authorities use the corridor as well as Amtrak and four freight railroads.

Officials decided on the new projects based on input from 3,200 residents, including some in Delaware. The new airport rail line, which would begin at the Eddystone Rail Station and run adjacent to Pennsylvania state route 291, was an idea Delawareans overwhelmingly supported, Lehner said.

“One of the things that we know that we heard very loudly and very clearly from folks in the Wilmington and Philadelphia area is the need and the desire to have direct access to a major airport,” Lehner said.

The FRA has not tabulated a cost estimate for the proposed rail loop.

Delawareans taking public transportation to the airport must board a northbound train from Wilmington, Churchmans Crossing or Newark into the core of Philadelphia, and then transfer back south to the airport. Alternatively, they can take a commuter rail train to Chester, Pennsylvania, and transfer to a SEPTA bus bound for the airport. Both options can take more than two hours.

Getting to the airport in a car can also be a hassle because "you have to get someone to take you there or pick you up," said Newark resident Debbie Windish on Thursday as she waited to board Amtrak to Florida at the Wilmington train station. It was just her second trip aboard Amtrak.

Windish would consider taking a direct train to the airport, she said, but was less certain whether the line would be worth the likely commitment of billions of taxpayer dollars.

“It depends on how many people would use it whether it would be worth the money,” she said.

Despite support from residents and the federal agency, a groundbreaking for the airport rail loop – if it were to happen – is still years and possibly decades away. The next hurdle for supporters is to convince state or local governments to sponsor the proposal with a promise to pay part of its cost.

Lehner said that could take the form of a joint Delaware, Pennsylvania venture.

“It would likely be Delaware and Pennsylvania coming together, maybe with the two cities or other entities, but those are the project sponsors who would say, ‘Hey, I want to build that,’” he said.

The Pennsylvania and Delaware transportation departments have never worked on a “multi-modal” infrastructure project together, said Erin Waters-Trasatt, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

“While we support the Northeast Corridor report’s goals of improving rail travel, finding the money will be challenging,” she said. “We would be eager to see the federal government make the investment.”

The Delaware Department of Transportation did not provide comment for this story.

Officials from SEPTA and DART, which jointly run commuter rail service between Delaware and Philadelphia, have expressed reservations about the financial feasibility of the project given constraints on state budgets.

In an emailed statement, Byron Comati, SEPTA's director of strategic planning, said the agency in the near future is focused on maintaining its current rail network, but the FRA recommendations give the projects "a heightened sense of priority."

"The next steps would be to gather input from constituencies and stakeholders at the local level," he said. A significant amount of planning remains to determine the funding needs, and the various local, county, state and federal constituencies and stakeholders would have to consider how to identify or raise funding."

The local planning department in Delaware County is one jurisdiction to have expressed full support for the airport rail line. In a letter to the FRA in January, Delaware County Planning Director Linda Hill said the county is behind the proposal "especially if it allows (SEPTA) regional rail service to use the new lines."

Despite hurdles, the value of the federal recommendations is they set a coordinated plan between multiple states in the region, which can be utilized when the federal government has an appetite to pay for big transportation projects, Lehner said.

Federal dollars can more easily flow to pre-planned projects, he said.

“When you look at regions that are organized and say ‘Hey, I have a plan, I know where I want to go and I know what type of service I want to provide,'...it allows the federal agency to be much more confident in what they’re investing in," he said.

Philadelphia International Airport, which is owned and operated by the city of Philadelphia, would welcome the line because it would bring more passengers to the facility, said Mary Flannery, spokeswoman for the airport.

Whether the airport would help fund the project is unknown at this point because any new capital expenditures must be approved by the airlines, she said.

Separate from the December announcement, Vice President Joe Biden in August said trains, stations and tracks in the Northeast corridor will be upgraded with a $2.45 billion federal loan to Amtrak. In the announcement, he noted that one in three jobs in the country lie along the Northeast Corridor.

It is the largest single loan in U.S. Department of Transportation history.

Middletown resident Natalie Davis, another Thursday traveler at the Wilmington train station, said trains to Center City, Philadelphia ,and to the airport, relieve Delawareans of stress that arises from searching for parking.

"Now they just need to build (a line) to Middletown," she said.

Contact Karl Baker at (302) 324-2329 or kbaker@delawareonline.com. Follow him on Twitter @kbaker6

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