Prioritize Amtrak’s future

Amtrak’s east-west service in Pennsylvania, faced with more bad news in recent days, has some officials, as well as passengers dependent on the service, much more pessimistic about its prospects for long-term survival than they’ve been for some time.

Optimism of early 2013, spawned by Gov. Tom Corbett’s announcement of a deal to save the Pennsylvanian, disintegrated earlier this month with the disclosure that the passenger rail line through this part of the commonwealth and points west and east could cease to exist as of the end of October if a funding solution is not finalized.

Although many people had hoped otherwise, a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman confirmed on Aug. 15 that the state’s Amtrak commitment runs only through October and that the service could end if funding remains in limbo.

Although she said PennDOT remains committed to preserving the service, that can’t happen without the money necessary to keep the train operating.

The bottom line: Amtrak’s fate is in the hands of the state Legislature, Corbett, PennDOT and, of course, Amtrak officials. With the Legislature scheduled to return to the state capital next month, items at the top of the to-do list must include putting the Amtrak financial puzzle’s pieces together so the Pennsylvanian’s service is not interrupted.

Next year is an election year for most state lawmakers and the governor. Their standing with people in a wide swath of the Keystone State, including Altoona, won’t be enhanced if they are unable to implement a financial package capable of averting the possible shutdown that is perched on the horizon.

To some people not familiar with the service and opportunities available, the Pennsylvanian might be regarded as just a train. But beyond moving passengers, there’s a positive economic impact to communities along its route that must be factored into the important dialogue.

If high-speed rail had become a reality rather than remaining just a dream for so many decades, current uncertainties about the Pennsylvanian would not exist at this time. People would be buying tickets well in advance to ensure themselves a seat for their destinations, and few if any elected officials would be willing to put their political future in jeopardy by voting in any way that could undermine the service.

“We remain committed to preserving that [Pennsylvanian] service, even as we deal with the Legislature’s failure to properly fund transportation,” said the PennDOT spokeswoman, Jamie Legenos, in clarifying the existence of the end-of-October deadline.

Still, her statement is contrary to a report in a Pittsburgh newspaper in July indicating that the train’s operation could be maintained beyond that time by way of a $20 million pot of uncommitted cash.

It’s obvious that further clarification of what is being said or implied is necessary in the days ahead, not weeks from now. Meanwhile, it’s an unfortunate truth that even the most important state business usually ends up not being resolved until the last minute, which apparently is what will happen regarding the vital Pennsylvanian issue.

All that considered, pessimism is not out of order, but it should never be a path to acceptance of an unwanted result. Rather, it should be a springboard for demanding the right results.

The Legislature, Corbett, PennDOT and Amtrak should keep that in mind in the weeks ahead.

Demise of the Pennsylvanian is not an acceptable option.