PennDOT: Rail needs funding to operate

Five months after Gov. Tom Corbett announced a deal to save the last remaining passenger rail line through west-central Pennsylvania, transportation officials are again hedging their statements as a failed transport funding bill leaves the train without a much-needed state subsidy.

“The Pennsylvanian,” Amtrak’s daily route running from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, is guaranteed funding only through October, PennDOT representatives said Thursday. Without a fall funding bill or an alternative plan, the route could cease operations before winter.

It’s not clear what backup plan, if any, is prepared. Nevertheless, Amtrak and PennDOT representatives stressed that talks are “going smoothly” to preserve the Pennsylvanian for the long run.

“Right now, we’re working with PennDOT to hammer out logistics and details of the contract,” Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz wrote in an email. “Those discussions are going well, and we’re optimistic that we can reach an agreement before the Oct. 1 deadline.”

Early this year, transportation officials raised the possibility of the route’s October cancellation – the outcome of a 2008 federal law that requires new funding methods for passenger lines under 750 miles. The Pennsylvanian, which also runs from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, stops at Huntingdon, Tyrone, Altoona and Johnstown, among other cities.

Amid public rallies and declarations of support from local legislators, Corbett announced March 21 that the state had reached a deal to provide roughly $3.8 million annually to help cover Amtrak’s local expenses. As budget discussions progressed and funding remained tied to a summer transportation bill, state officials affirmed their dedication to saving the Pennsylvanian.

In the last days of June, however, the transportation bill collapsed in the state House of Representatives.

It appeared the Pennsylvanian would again be in jeopardy – but in July, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review quoted PennDOT officials who said they could maintain funding from a $20 million pot of uncommitted cash.

“We’re going to continue to honor that commitment to keep those services running. We’re able to do that,” the newspaper quoted spokesman Steve Chizmar.

On Thursday, PennDOT spokeswoman Jamie Legenos said the state’s commitment runs only through October. Funding details after that have yet to be determined, she said.

“That plan … was dependent on passage of a transportation spending plan,” Legenos said. “We remain committed to preserving that service, even as we deal with the Legislature’s failure to properly fund transportation.”

Legenos said PennDOT and Amtrak are in talks to find a solution. State Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford, who heads the House Transportation Committee, has said he hopes to pass a transport bill after legislators return to Harrisburg next month. Hess had supported state funding for the Amtrak route, at one point addressing a Huntingdon rally for the cause.

“There’s always room for error,” Hess acknowledged in April, months before the June transportation bill floundered.

Now, it seems the congratulatory editorials and thankful messages from rail supporters earlier this year may have been premature.

“My understanding is that the announcement in March was an agreement ‘in principle’ to fund the Pennsylvanian, and was dependent upon the state Legislature acting on the governor’s transportation plan,” Shulz said.