The Lackawanna Cutoff was a grade-separated, high-speed route between Port Morris, NJ and the Delaware Water Gap built by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad to replace the more circuitous route on its original mainline. Its last passenger train ran in 1970 and its tracks were removed a decade later. Passenger rail supporters have advocated restoration of service ever since.
Over the past year, some progress has been made. In June, NJ Transit officials announced a plan to build an eight-mile first phase segment from Port Morris to Andover. This $37 million project has been fully funded, according to NJ Transit's website. When it is completed in 2012, 10 eastbound and 11 westbound trains would operate between Andover and Midtown Manhattan, presumably powered by locomotives with diesel engines and pantagraphs to draw current from overhead catenary.
That leaves 80 miles to go to reach the ultimate destination, Scranton, PA, 133 miles from NJ Transit's Hoboken Terminal. The good news is that the entire route is in hands of government authorities. New Jersey acquired the Lackawanna Cutoff in 2001. Pennsylvania owns the bridge over the Delaware River and the right of way as far as Slateford Junction. The newly formed Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Rail Authority has leased the line from Slateford Junction to East Stroudsburg from the Nortfolk Southern Railway and it owns the remaining tracks into Scranton.
The holdup is getting a ruling of No Significant Impact from the Federal Transit Administration on the project's environmental assessment. Without that ruling, preliminary engineering work will not begin. NJ Transit, which is the presumed operator of the trains, said is was working to secure a ruling in 2008; it has 24 days to go, as of this writing.
The project's cost is close to $600 million, and counting. Elements include laying 28 miles of new track, upgrading 60 miles of existing track, rehabilitating two major bridges and a tunnel, new signaling, communications and control systems, eight new stations with parking, a storage yard, maintenance shed and crew facility in Scranton and a maintenance of way facility in Greendell, NJ. Also, locomotives and cars to equip nine daily roundtrips will need to be acquired.
If NJ Transit's ridership projections of 3,350 daily passengers from points west of Andover are accurate, this represents a significant benefit to a fast-growing region whose highways are ill-equipped to handle the increased demand. According to the project's environmental assessment, the population of the regions of New Jersey and Pennsylvania served by this route grew by nearly 13 percent during the 1990s and is forecast to grow by another 23 percent by 2030.
Not surprisingly, the main highway linking the region with metropolitan New York, Interstate 80, is straining to meet the demand. The four-lane I-80 bridge over the Delaware River experienced a 19 percent increase in traffic between 1997 and 2002, climbing from 45,000 to 53,000 vehicles per day. It is expected to experience a 15 percent jump for the 2004 - 2010 period and then an additional 46 percent increase between 2010 and 2030.Widening I-80 is problematic. The highway passes through the Delaware Water Gap, a twisting segment of the eponymous River lined by cliffs on both sides. The environmental impacts would be huge and the cost would be exorbitant (think I-70 through Colorado's Glenwood Canyon). The existing rail line could be upgraded and restored for a fraction of the cost.
Will the Lackawanna cutoff make the cut to be included in the economic stimulus plan? It depends on what New Jersey and Pennsylvania transportation officials, the two states' Congressional delegations, federal bureaucrats and rail advocates do to make it happen.