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Delaware study examines north-south passenger rail

(The following story by Dan Shortridge appeared on The News Journal website on August 6, 2010.)

WILMINGTON, Del. Transportation authorities in Delaware and Maryland soon will begin studying the possibility of a new passenger rail line that would run north and south through the First State.

The $900,000 study will examine the feasibility of rail service from New Castle County south to Dover and further on to Ocean City, Md. It's part of a national program to examine high-speed inter-city rail service under the federal stimulus act.

But commuters shouldn't get their hopes up too much -- it will take two years to finish the study, and then another untold number of years to actually build the line should it be deemed practical, cautioned Mike Williams of the Delaware Department of Transportation.

"It's just in its infancy," Williams said. "Building rail, similar to building new road infrastructure, is a complex, long-term and pricey proposition."

Still, rail enthusiasts are welcoming those baby steps.

Tom Posatko, president of the Delmarva Rail Passenger Association, said Maryland and Delaware have been "somewhat slow in coming to a realization that there's more to transportation than highways."

He called word of the study encouraging, as it could lead to a serious look at expanding passenger rail service in the region.

"We've been out there saying this, and it's slowly catching on," Posatko said.

Any passenger rail service considered as part of the study would be run on brand-new tracks, not existing freight lines, because of the restrictions that would be imposed by the freight companies, Williams said. "The mingling and mixing of freight service and passenger rail service doesn't work," he said.

The study will be financed mostly by the federal government and Delaware -- including $450,000 in federal funds, $400,000 from Delaware and $45,000 from Maryland, Williams said.

Maryland's part of the study is smaller and will look at extending the scope of rail service from the Delaware line into Ocean City, said Erin Henson of the Maryland Department of Transportation. She said Maryland decided to "piggyback" on the Delaware study after being approached by First State officials.

"The potential is that this alternate rail option could reduce traffic on the Bay Bridge and Maryland's Eastern Shore highways," Henson said.

The study will focus on estimating the demand for passenger rail in the region, determining what would be a sufficient volume of passengers to warrant moving ahead with the next steps of permitting, land purchasing and construction, Williams said. If approved, that process could take decades to work through.

He cautioned that the threshold for gauging that demand is high. "A few hundred or a few thousand people saying, 'Trains are a great idea' does not equal sufficient demand for construction," Williams said.

Posatko said the issue of demand is critical: "If we go and put in a rail line, then we've got to be sure that it's something that people want and it's something that people are going to use."

But he said other areas around the country that have taken the plunge and developed passenger rail systems have found that they work well and are popular.

"It's sort of like the old 'Field of Dreams' line -- 'If you build it, they will use it,'" Posatko said. "Sometimes it's hard to know in advance whether people are going to -- they may not commit to it, but once they see it in place and once they realize this is a whole lot better than driving up Route 1 or whatever, they will come."

Friday, August 06, 2010

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