The regional authority that oversees train service in Lackawanna and Monroe counties is open to the possibility of merging with Luzerne County’s rail system, an official said.
Luzerne County Councilman Rick Williams has proposed forming a committee to explore putting the Luzerne County Rail Corp.’s 56 miles of track under the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Rail Authority, saying the move could improve the chances of bringing passenger rail to Wilkes-Barre.
The Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Rail Authority, which covers Lackawanna and Monroe, owns 100 miles of rail and is spearheading plans for passenger rail service linking Scranton to a New Jersey line that connects to New York City.
A merger could put Luzerne County at the head table in passenger rail plans, Williams said. The issue will be discussed at tonight’s council operational services committee meeting chaired by Williams.
Pennsylvania Northeast representatives are willing to review merger options and had unsuccessfully discussed the possibility of combining operations with Luzerne County officials when the regional authority formed in 2006, said authority President Lawrence Malski.
Malski said he and other authority representatives have extensive experience in the process of combining jurisdictions from the authority’s formation.
“There are a lot of details that would have to be worked out, but it’s not that complicated,” Malski said.
One hurdle would be the liability of the Luzerne County Rail Corp.’s outstanding debt to the county. The Rail Corp. is a sister organization of the county Redevelopment Authority.
Prior county commissioners borrowed $2 million in 2001 to help the county Redevelopment Authority and Rail Corp. buy 56 miles of railroad and associated property. The county also loaned the entities around $1.5 million in community development funds for the purchase.
The plans called for the county to be repaid as unneeded property along the track was sold, though most of the debt remains on the books because anticipated big-ticket sales haven’t materialized. Commissioners originally had resisted the request for funds to purchase the line but acted when 25 businesses serviced by the track pleaded with them to reconsider.
The Rail Corp.’s outstanding contract with a rail operator also could come into play. The Luzerne and Susquehanna Railway Co. (LSX) has at least a decade left on its operating agreement.
A committee also must discuss Luzerne County’s representation on the regional authority if a merger occurs, Williams said.
The Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Rail Authority is governed by eight board members — four from Lackawanna County and four from Monroe, Malski said.
While the push for passenger rail is a top priority, Malski’s authority also has focused heavily on increasing freight and economic development along its track, he said. Hundreds of new jobs were created by attracting new rail-dependent industries in both counties, he said.
The authority and its designated operator — the Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad — issued a release announcing 794 carloads of freight transported on the line in April, compared to 654 the previous April.
“Since the rail mode is usually the lowest cost means of general transportation, it is becoming more and more of an incentive and enticement to attract new industries to Northeastern Pennsylvania,” Malski said in a release.
Luzerne County’s rail operator also has reported increased traffic, from about 450 carloads annually in 1994 to more than 2,200 in 2013, according to the LSX website.
Based in Owego, N.Y., LSX utilizes four locomotives and seven employees to operate and maintain the Luzerne County line, the website says.
Williams said the committee would be asked to identify the issues, benefits, risks and costs of merging with the regional authority.
Passenger rail benefits
Passenger rail service connecting Luzerne County with other cities will improve the county’s quality of life, attract visitors to Northeastern Pennsylvania and reduce congestion on highways, Williams wrote in a proposed resolution creating the committee.
The Rail Corp. also owns and operates several miles of track in Lackawanna County, Williams said.
Malski said his authority is working closely with NJ Transit, which is laying a 7.3-mile section of track for passenger rail from Port Morris to Andover needed for the Scranton connection.
Funding has not been identified for the second phase linking Andover to East Stroudsburg and the third phase into Scranton and possibly Wilkes-Barre, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, officials say.