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Rail advocates' day in Rochester is coming

(The following story by Jim Stinson appeared on the Democrat and Chronicle website on May 30, 2009.)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — While high-speed rail for Rochester seems years away, June 17 is shaping up to be a big day for its local advocates.

That's the day the federal government will begin shaping the list of contenders across the nation on what types of projects will receive $8 billion in passenger-rail funding.

A final decision by the Federal Railroad Administration could come as soon as the fall.

Local officials hope Rochester will remain in contention. The projects from across the nation will be part of an $8 billion federal plan to begin tying together passenger-rail lines, servicing areas such as the Amtrak line from Buffalo to Albany with new high-speed rail.

The date was announced during the "Repositioning Rochester" series of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp.

The RDDC held a luncheon with several business and government officials speaking about recent economic news during an event titled "Rochester Rising."

The federal government is mulling over a new Buffalo-Albany passenger-rail line and whether it's the type of line that could receive some of the federal funding available, according to Chris Zeltmann, an economic development official from the office of U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport.

The Federal Railroad Administration, which is responsible for going through the proposals nationwide, will make the series of decisions.

The proposed passenger-rail line could be added along two existing lines owned by CSX Corp.

Zeltmann told those at the luncheon that Amtrak currently uses CSX lines, and fewer than half of regional Amtrak trains arrive on time because of scheduling conflicts with CSX freight lines.

The passenger trains also would move faster on a dedicated line, he said. The average speed now for an Amtrak train in the region is about 50 mph, Zeltmann said. The new high-speed rail would allow the trains to travel at 110 mph.

Zeltmann said after the administration's guidance, outright federal approvals could begin in the fall.

But the plan had its skeptics in the business audience. One was John Rynne, president of Rynne, Murphy and Associates Inc., a real estate and appraisal company.

Rynne said during a question-and-answer session that the highway to Albany is adequate, that the rail line was unnecessary and that the $8 billion could be used by the federal government to decrease the tax burden on New York.

He called the high-speed rail plan "pork barrel" spending, and noted the comparison of Amtrak's daily passenger numbers — about 275 daily in Rochester — to the 1,500 Rochester-area people who use Greyhound Lines Inc. buses daily.

Zeltmann responded that public highways receive many more billions of dollars in federal subsidies than rail receives.

"The convenience is there in part because roads are subsidized," Zeltmann said after the luncheon. "Rail has not been subsidized to that degree."

After the event, Rynne said New York did well in the 1960s before a wave of higher taxes, and that higher taxation since then has driven upstate New York into "economic oblivion."

Zeltmann said after the luncheon that there is a real demand for high-speed rail: Amtrak ridership in Rochester rose 26 percent in 2008 from 2007, he said.

Statewide, New York had a 9 percent increase in Amtrak usage in 2008 from 2007, according to Zeltmann.

The luncheon event was held at the Hyatt Regency Rochester.

Other topics discussed included Midtown Plaza, the Rochester International Jazz Festival and Renaissance Square.

Monday, June 1, 2009

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