Commissioners Split on Support for Rail Upgrade
By Rick Hiduk
In a two to one vote, the Bradford County Commissioners threw their support behind Lehigh Railway LLC’s bid for a $700,000 state grant that would help the company replace every fourth railroad tie on its freight line from Athens to Mehoopany. Commissioners Doug McLinko and John Sullivan backed the project, while Mark Smith opposed the measure.
“I believe these types of projects that would ultimately benefit private industries should remain investments by private industries and not include the use of taxpayer money, especially in the form of a grant,” Smith stated after the meeting. “We have deep fiscal problems in Pennsylvania, and I believe money for things like this railroad project could be spent in other ways that could better benefit the taxpayers.”
McLinko explained during the meeting that, by replacing every fourth rail, more freight could run on the line and at greater speeds. He estimated that as many as 40,000 highway runs by tanker trucks per year in the area could be alleviated by the plan.
“All around, I think it’s a good thing. It will alleviate a lot of traffic on the roads that is due to Marcellus drilling,” said McLinko. “They don’t have to raise our taxes to do this, and it will create jobs.” McLinko feels that the increase in gas drilling and other industries in Bradford and Wyoming counties will support a renaissance in railroad usage and that more sidings and abandoned spurs along the Norfolk Southern Railway will be brought back into service. He also acknowledged the irony that the federal government has spent a lot of money over the past two decades to dismantle many local railroads.
“I supported this proposed upgrade to the rail line because of the increased usage of the line,” added Sullivan via email. “The more material shipped by rail should reduce the amount of truck traffic through Bradford County.”
“We pay taxes for infrastructure. We pay to asphalt roads,” McLinko noted as other examples of how the state funds projects. He related that he was under the impression from the beginning of the gas drilling boom that more materials would be delivered to the area via the railroads.
Lehigh Railway LLC vice-president of sales Jim Raffa explained that the money would come from the state Department of Transportation’s Rail Freight Assistance Program. He described the plan as a “track rehabilitation project.”
“It’s mostly a safety tie project, plus some replacement of worn rails,” Raffa stated, further referring to the strategy as “accelerated maintenance of a line” that has deteriorated since the 1980s. While he agreed that the project could increase the amount of freight that can travel on the railroad, he downplayed the notion that the trains would be going much faster. “We aren’t expecting to increase train speeds,” he maintained.