A small but important first step toward the possible return of passenger rail service to the Lehigh Valley was taken late Wednesday night by Allentown City Council.
In a surprise move, council unanimously voted to support feasibility and marketing studies on rail service in the Lehigh Valley and to request state and/or federal funding to pay for such studies.
It also formally is recommending that Lehigh Valley legislators and local municipal governments and authorities join in supporting the funding of those studies.
Council’s surprise vote left “flabbergasted” Kirk Raup, who unsuccessfully has been trying for years to get Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton officials moving forward on the idea of restoring passenger service to Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York City.
“It’s a very good move -- a small step, but a very important one,” said Raup, who was at the meeting but did not address council.
The Lehigh Valley has not had passenger rail service to Philadelphia or New York for 51 years, according to the resolution passed by council.
Raup believes Allentown’s lead vote will spur Bethlehem and Easton to also approve the resolution. “That’s going to mean something to the other cities. Easton and Bethlehem are on the cusp of doing this and I hope to shake them loose.”
He would like to see the three cities jointly create a rail transit authority that would develop a viable plan for rail service, including financing.
While the resolution states Allentown’s mayor also supports state and federal funding to explore re-establishing rail service, Mayor Ed Pawlowski was not at the City Council meeting to weigh in on the issue. Nor did any other city administrators in attendance address it.
The resolution was on City Council’s agenda only for first reading and was set to be referred back to its public works committee, which met with Raup about the issue months ago.
But, without revealing how he would vote, council member Peter Schweyer suggested voting on it immediately and all his colleagues agreed.
No council members expressed any opinions on the merits of the resolution before the vote. Nor did any of the few people speak who still were in the audience after 10:30 p.m.
Raup has said he has met with the mayors of all three cities twice in the last couple of years to get things started on restoring passenger rail service. He also has attended many city council meetings in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.
The resolution states rail service would provide economic and quality of life benefits to the Lehigh Valley. It suggests exploring re-establishing rail service “and multi-modes of transportation” to connect the Valley with the New York and Philadelphia.
Raup has estimated restoring rail service to the Lehigh Valley would cost $500 million, with half the money coming from the federal government, and take at least a decade before the first trains roll out of the Valley to Philadelphia and New York.