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NY state aims to get up to speed with rail project

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Chris Carola on May 1, 2009.)

FONDA, N.Y. Mayor Kimberly Flander is in mid-sentence when the train horn blares, followed by a rumble felt throughout her two-room office in this tiny Mohawk River village.

"Everything shakes," Flander says with a shrug, describing the effects of the freight cars and Amtrak passenger trains zipping past on tracks that bisect her community of about 800 located 40 miles northwest of Albany.

If lawmakers in Albany and Washington pushing for a high-speed rail system get their way, those trains will be traveling faster and, they hope, reviving Fonda and all the other struggling former manufacturing towns along the east-west railroad corridor stretching across upstate New York.

In March, Gov. David Paterson announced the state's plan to seek some of the $8 billion in federal stimulus money set aside for improving the nation's rail system. In April, President Barack Obama called high-speed rail travel a priority to relieve highway congestion, help clean the air and save energy.

New York officials say faster, more efficient movement of people and freight will be a major step toward economic revival. While the plan is designed for the state's entire rail system, Amtrak's Empire Corridor connecting Albany and Buffalo is getting special attention because of the region's anemic economy.

"If we really want to bring back the economy of upstate New York, this is an integral part of it," said U.S. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Rochester-area Democrat and longtime supporter of improved Amtrak service. "Those mill towns have failed, and part of it is transportation. We let so many of them just strangle. They deserve better."

New York's comprehensive rail plan is the latest of the state's many attempts to upgrade the region's passenger train service. The plan, a prerequisite for the federal application for the rail funds, calls for boosting freight rail usage while increasing the speed and reliability of Amtrak trains across New York.

Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told New York's congressional delegation earlier this year that the stimulus money will be parceled out to roughly six regions of the nation seeking to create high-speed rail corridors.

A decision is expected later this year.

As part of its plan to move goods and people faster across the upstate region, the state wants to build a third east-west track strictly for Amtrak trains, add a second track to the stretch between Albany and Schenectady, and make improvements to existing infrastructure.

"Reliable, quick access is how we do business these days," said state transportation department Commissioner Astrid Glynn. "Right now that corridor doesn't have it, unless you want to get in your car and drive and drive and drive."

Currently, Amtrak trains must share two sets of tracks along the corridor with dozens of CSX Corp. freight trains each day. CSX owns the right of way, and Amtrak trains often get delayed by freight traffic, resulting in irate passengers.

With a third Amtrak-only track, and with the speed of trains boosted from the current federal maximum of 79 mph to 110 mph or higher, officials envision a passenger train resurgence for upstate New York, and with it a revitalized economy.

"Transportation has always facilitated economic development," said Peter Hansen, editor of Railroad History, the academic journal the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society. "The places that get railroads tend to thrive, the ones that don't wither on the vine."

The addition of the Albany-Buffalo high-speed rail line alone would cost at least $3 billion and take several years. The project and other related upgrade work would create up to 12,000 construction jobs, officials say.

As for the more heavily traveled Albany-Manhattan Amtrak line, where passenger train speeds average 90 mph and can hit 110 mph only in a 15-mile stretch south of Albany, DOT officials want trains to achieve on-time performance of at least 95 percent. It's currently 87 percent, Amtrak officials say.

But figuring out just how faster trains will revitalize a moribund upstate economy that has shed nearly 145,000 manufacturing jobs over the past decade isn't readily apparent to some local officials such as Flander, a former state higher education employee-turned part-time preschool teacher.

"I don't see how it's going to provide any jobs for people here," she said recently from her office, a stone's throw from tracks used by CSX Transportation freight trains and Amtrak. "I might be wrong. I don't know the whole game plan of it."

Amtrak's Empire Corridor shadows the Erie Canal along much of the waterway's nearly 340 miles between Albany and Buffalo. Along the Mohawk Valley stretch, Fonda (founded by an ancestor of the acting clan) and other formerly thriving factory towns have seen their fortunes rise and fall with each advance in transportation technology. In the 19th century, mule-drawn canal boats gave way to trains that traveled on rails laid alongside the waterway, supplanting canal haulers but giving rise to the region's industrial base. The latter half of the 20th century brought the Thruway, which allowed traffic to bypass canalside communities just as their manufacturing jobs began to dwindle.

Now, New York officials hope faster trains will bring people, money and jobs back to the region in the form of entrepreneurs, tourists and business travelers.

"It's kind of the if-you-build-it-they-will come philosophy," said Kieran Donaghy, chairman of the City and Regional Planning Department at Cornell University. "A lot of firms look for service blocks, or a high-end concentration of services near a high-speed rail stop."

But, he cautions, cutting travel time between Point A and Point B can come with drawbacks.

"Are you just providing a means to get between Buffalo and Syracuse faster, and leaving in the backwash all the little communities along the way?" Donaghy said.

Others aren't convinced the rail plan is the economic antidote for what ails the upstate region. According to one critic, upgrading the current system will be "hideously expensive," even with billions of dollars in federal funds.

"The stimulus money is like dumping a lot of feed at a hog farm _ everybody is lining up for it," said John Stilgoe, a professor in Harvard University's Visual and Environmental Studies Department.

"The right of way isn't maintained for even fast passenger service west of Albany," said Stilgoe, author of "Train Time: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the United States Landscape."

For now, the state's plan doesn't include adding Amtrak stops, something officials in places like Lyons, midway between Syracuse and Rochester, have been seeking for years. One of the current stops _ Rome _ could be eliminated as officials push for faster trains designed to cut the five-hour, 30-minute trip between Albany and Buffalo by two hours.

Rome Mayor James Brown said he supports the rail plan even if it means losing his city's Amtrak stop in favor of keeping one in Utica, 15 miles to the east. Bringing more jobs to the region is the priority, he said.

"We have to look the regionalization aspect of this," he said.

Amtrak said it's waiting, like everyone else with a stake in the rail industry, to see where the federal stimulus funds go and how much is doled out to each project.

"From our standpoint, any rail plan that we can work on that can decrease the travel time of our passengers by adding track capacity is something we would look favorably on," said Cliff Cole, an Amtrak spokesman in New York City.

Monday, May 4, 2009

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