Senate approves state rail study

Political Notebook

After years of public calls to save the existing line and add new ones, a group of state senators has taken a major step toward two new Amtrak round-trips through the Altoona area.

The Senate unanimously adopted a resolution Tuesday — sponsored by Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, and cosponsored by Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria — directing the Budget and Finance Committee to study two new trips through Johnstown, Altoona and neighboring towns.

A successful study and added trips would represent a public victory for the rail advocates and business leaders who have long called for additional service here. As it stands, only one train travels in either direction daily between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

“I believe in passenger rail,” Langerholc said in a statement following the vote. “I believe in its effectiveness to connect smaller cities and towns with larger urban centers. And I believe this will be the catalyst for creating and driving economic growth and rejuvenating our smaller cities.”

The resolution calls for Senate budget officials to review existing literature on the proposal, join Amtrak in estimating costs and determine how much equipment would be needed. They will be asked to issue their findings within nine months — and to show additional findings within a year on possible added service that could go as far west as Chicago.

A new study shows how far rail advocates have come since 2013, when the last daily trips through Altoona were at risk. Lawmakers and rail advocates pushed to save the line, which remains in place today.

Still, the process remains slow-moving: PennDOT released a study detailing possible changes to passenger rail in August 2014, and the new Senate review might not be finished until next March.

National group jumps into liquor fight

A national conservative group funded by David and Charles Koch — the billionaire brothers known for their vast political spending — is taking aim at Pennsylvania’s liquor control system with an upcoming event in Altoona.

Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit founded in 2004 that helped power the nascent tea party movement during President Barack Obama’s administration, has launched a “Free Our Spirits” campaign to privatize liquor sales in Pennsylvania.

Members and supporters are set to gather at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Oak Spring Winery along Pleasant Valley Boulevard to discuss methods to cut liquor regulation, a representative said.

“For far too long, Harrisburg’s costly spirits monopoly has been a party for a few, paid for by you, the Pennsylvania taxpayer,” the group’s state director wrote last month. “It’s time to stop subjecting adults to high costs and absurd inconvenience when they enjoy a drink.”

Advocates of the state liquor system, including the labor union that represents Wine & Spirits store employees, challenge the notion that the state monopoly costs taxpayers. The system turns hundreds of millions of dollars over to the state’s coffers each years.

Nevertheless, groups like Americans for Prosperity have argued privatization would lower costs and allow wider access to liquor and wine. The campaign would tack with the group’s past national efforts, which have included campaigns against emissions controls and pro-union laws.

Trump takes credit for Pa. coal jobs

President Donald Trump didn’t stop in Somerset County as some had expected last week, but he pointed to a new coal mine there as evidence of his administration’s energy success Wednesday.

Trump has made much of new coal industry hiring since he took office — a marker, in his view, of a growing economy no longer constrained by onerous environmental regulations.

“Next week, we’re opening a big coal mine,” Trump said in a widely covered address announcing his national infrastructure plans. “It’s actually a new mine. That hasn’t happened in a long time, folks. But we’re putting … the miners back to work.”

Trump was referring to a new Corsa Coal Corp. mine that opened in Somerset County last week. National news reports have said the new mine, which was planned before Trump won the November election, is set to employ 70 to 100 people.

Trump has said moves like his withdrawal from the “horrendous” Paris Accord — a climate-change agreement signed by nearly every nation — will enable coal mines to reopen across the country. But the reality is more complex.

The Somerset County mine got a $3 million grant from the state, for one. And experts have pointed to global economic forces affecting coal’s profitability.

Nevertheless, coal company officials are happy to attribute at least some of their success to Trump’s policies.

“The war on coal is over,” Corsa executive George Dethlefsen said, according to the Washington Post.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.