Sunday, February 22, 2009

Officials Eye Highway Toll to Restore Rails to Reading

Among the more shortsighted decisions made in recent years by transit agency's was SEPTA's decision to annul service on its routes from Philadelphia to Reading, Pottsville and Bethlehem in the early 1980s. Shortsighted not only because they eliminated viable routes, but also because plans to restore service have become too expensive. One revival plan, the Schuykill Valley Metro running to Reading, would have cost $2 billion.

Now officials of Berks, Montgomery and Chester Counties plan to study the feasibility of converting U.S. Route 422, a limited access expressway between Pottstown, in the northwest corner of Montgomery County, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in King of Prussia, into a toll road that could help pay for extending SEPTA's R6 commuter line to Reading. The $2 toll would also be used to upgrade the highway, which experiences heavy rush hour congestion.

Three rail options are under consideration: extending the R6 as an electrified train to Valley Forge; operating a connecting diesel train from Norristown to Reading, or extending electrification to Reading and providing direct service from Philadelphia.

"A commuter rail line has been discussed for many years as a proposed solution to the increasing traffic volumes on Route 422 in Berks and Montgomery counties, however, funding has always been one of the major roadblocks," said Judy Schwank, President and CEO of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania and a former Berks County commissioner. "This study addresses that difficult issue head-on by exploring possible funding mechanisms including public-private partnerships and tolling."
According to Leo Bagley, Montgomery County assistant director for planning, the new rail line would cost around $500 million, around one-fourth the price of the plan that was previously rejected by federal officials in 2002.

Montgomery County represents a potential growth opportunity for SEPTA. According to the Pottstown Mercury, 81 percent of the county's residents travel to work alone each day. A mere 4 percent take mass transit. A modern commuter rail service could change that ratio and help Montgomery County break away from the suburban sprawl mentality. It also could see Pottstown's beautiful limestone depot (above), which now houses a bank, welcoming railroad passengers once again.

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