Williamsport Sun-Gazette: Rail service within reach amid spending push

State officials are talking up the prospect of new passenger train lines and expanded service across the state, citing billions of dollars in expected economic benefits.

But their vision could remain just that, unless they can scrape together enough state and federal funds to cover the new services. And while congressional Democrats are calling for tens of billions in new transportation funds, there’s no guarantee it will become a reality.

“We could make a huge difference for the mobility in this region,” Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said last week, touting hoped-for new lines in Northeast Pennsylvania in a conference with politicians and officials.

The service could add lines tying Scranton, Allentown and Reading into the busy corridor that already carries travelers along the East Coast. Amtrak officials have also proposed an additional daily east-west route that would cover Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and many cities and towns between, as well as an added line to Cleveland.

“Amtrak is ready to do its part and has created a forward-looking vision for train service throughout the northeast,” Gov. Tom Wolf said last week, praising federal leaders who are willing to fund the work. “A vision that is good for jobs, good for the economy and good for the climate.”

There’s nothing new about transit agencies and companies boasting of big future projects — including some that never pan out. But rail advocates have long pushed for some of these changes, and federal funding making its way through Congress could make the projects a reality in the next few years.

Several local officials and congressional representatives joined the Amtrak call last week. And since then, House Democrats have moved to approve more federal transportation funds, even as a $1 trillion infrastructure bill approaches completion.

Even securing those expected funds, however, could be easier said than done.

Last week the Senate passed the $1 trillion bill with support from both parties’ leaders, setting the stage for a major investment in transportation and infrastructure. And while Democrats control the House and would typically support it, they’re first calling for far more funding in the form of President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan.

That larger plan is a non-starter for Republicans, but supporters hope to narrowly pass it through both chambers of Congress using a legislative process called budget reconciliation. As the bigger bill advances, members of Congress are piling on additional funding — including for rail networks.

In a party-line vote Wednesday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee agreed to carve out $60 billion in the bigger bill. That includes $6 billion for “surface transportation” and billions more to reduce carbon emissions and improve transportation access in lower-income areas.

If both the infrastructure bills pass, it would mean a boost for projects like those Amtrak is pushing for Pennsylvania. In a written statement Wednesday, committee Chair Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Ore., touted the benefits that $60 billion could bring.

“I look forward to seeing Congress pass this once-in-a-generation legislation because we can’t afford to squander this opportunity,” he said.

GOP presses on with audit

A sweeping audit of Pennsylvanians’ voter records — once dismissed as a fringe fixation even among some Republicans — is gearing up with support from legislative leaders.

Elected Democrats have promised legal challenges against the planned 2020 election audit, which Republican lawmakers say is necessary to ensure smooth and secure elections. Republicans loyal to former president Donald Trump have called for audits in many states, echoing unproven claims of fraud.

This week, a GOP-controlled state Senate committee issued subpoenas demanding detailed election information, including every voter’s name, birth date, address and partial Social Security numbers. Those supporting the subpoena included Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair; Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams; and Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre.

Democrats voted against the subpoenas but lost in a 7-4 committee vote.

“We do not need personal information to draft legislation,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said in a news release. “That fact, along with so many others, clearly shows this so-called investigation represents corruption at every turn.”

Three Pennsylvanians in Congress are spearheading a new House effort to revive the Civilian Conservation Corps, the 1930s program that sent unemployed young men to remote worksites to develop and conserve natural resources.

The three — Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District; Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District; and Rep. Dwight Evans, D-3rd District — are among the first sponsors of the so-called Revive the CCC Act, which would create a modern equivalent. They join a similar effort in the Senate, led by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. since July.

Sweeping federal work programs have been the topic of much discussion in the past few years, especially amid talk of a so-called Green New Deal to respond to climate change. The original corps was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the sweeping government response to the Great Depression.

The revived program would place workers at job sites across the country, with health benefits and a $15-per-hour wage reimbursed by the federal government.

“This legislation will revitalize the CCC and put people to work with good-paying jobs,” Lamb said in announcing the bill.