PennDOT to fund rail for entire year

The state Department of Transportation is committed to funding a full year of east-west passenger rail service through the region, a spokeswoman said Friday, though service in the long term might still rely on new sources of state money.

Spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said PennDOT is set to cover a year’s subsidy – set in a March agreement at $3.8 million – for the Pennsylvanian, Amtrak’s daily line running from Philadelphia to Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. The train stops at Altoona, Tyrone, Huntingdon and other sites, making it the Altoona area’s only passenger rail connection to the rest of the state.

On Oct. 1, a 2008 federal law is set to take effect, turning the line’s government subsidy over to the state. PennDOT will cover the subsidy for a year from that point, Waters-Trasatt said.

In the absence of a transportation funding bill that could pump new money into the passenger rail, PennDOT will use funds from a $20 million uncommitted pile, she said.

“There’s a possibility that we’ll need to look at this next year,” Waters-Trasatt said.

Ongoing talks with Amtrak have largely concerned details of the financial arrangement, she said. Turning some train operations over to third-party contractors – a possible plan mentioned in state media reports – hasn’t been seriously considered to her knowledge, Waters-Trasatt said.

“There have been a couple suggestions [of contractors] in the past,” she said.

Some in the state House of Representatives, including Transportation Committee Chairman Dick Hess, R-Bedford, have held out hope for a transportation bill in the fall session. They return to Harrisburg next month.