Long haul

Pennsylvania is leading a five-state coalition in trying to secure $300
million in stimulus funds to upgrade railroad tracks that could speed
commerce while removing excess truck traffic from highways.

Pennsylvania is leading a five-state coalition in trying to secure $300 million in stimulus funds to upgrade railroad tracks that could speed commerce while removing excess truck traffic from highways.

Most of the upgrades would be to Norfolk Southern Corp.‘s tracks, tunnels, bridges and rail yards between New Jersey and Louisiana as part of a $2 billion upgrade to the so-called Crescent Corridor.

Norfolk Southern also is spending about $27 million to replace tracks between Harrisburg and the Maryland state line as part of its corridor improvements, said railroad spokesman Rudy Husband. The upgrades and additional engineering will increase train speeds by 5 to 10 mph, he said.

“These upgrades will improve transit times to move goods north and south along the East Coast,” he said.

That should help businesses save time and money in shipping and receiving goods, he said.

The railroad’s lines in the Crescent Corridor closely parallel the Interstate 81 corridor, which runs through Cumberland and Dauphin counties. Local governments have seen an increase in truck traffic and warehouses close to residential areas.

If the states receive the competitive U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) grant, about $61 million would go to Pennsylvania for the Harrisburg and Greencastle rail yards, projected to cost a total of $147 million, according to PennDOT. Virginia-based railroad Norfolk Southern would pitch in $46 million for the two projects and PennDOT would contribute $40 million for a new rail yard in Franklin County.

The Harrisburg rail yard stretches across the eastern side of the city and into Susquehanna Township. Norfolk Southern will add track for loading and unloading trains, as well as parking spaces for trucks being loaded or unloaded, Husband said.

Corridor-wide upgrades are expected to generate a broader impact, according to Norfolk Southern. Those benefits include:

  • 47,000 permanent jobs with the railroad, warehousing, logistics and light industry;
  • $326 million in state and local taxes;
  • 1.3 million long-haul trucks diverted from interstates;
  • $146 million in accident-avoidance savings;
  • 1.9 million-ton reduction in CO2 pollution;
  • $575 million in congestion savings;
  • $92 million savings on highway maintenance;
  • 169 million gallons in fuel savings.

It’s unlikely increased rail use for long-haul freight will hurt trucking companies, said Jim Runk, president and chief executive officer of the Camp Hill-based Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association. Some firms could put their loads on the train anyway because of the driver shortage for long-haul trucking, he said. The issue is whether the consumer can wait additional time to receive products, the distance involved and the cost, he said.

It’s not set in stone that rail improvements will reduce truck traffic by the millions, Runk said.

“It remains to be seen,” he said. “It might take some long-haul off the road, but it’s not automatic that this is going to occur.”

Short-haul trucking firms shouldn’t be affected because they’re taking freight off rails to deliver to stores and other customers anyway, he said. Other firms are getting business that never needs to go on rails, Runk said.

Although trucking and railroads companies compete about 40 percent of the time for business, they often work in conjunction as part of a larger freight system, he said.

“One of the greater values is that over time tremendous amounts of through-freight can be diverted from the highway and onto rail,” said Rick Rovegno, a Cumberland County commissioner and member of the Interstate 81 Corridor Coalition. The group of state and local officials, transportation experts and businesses organized two years ago to help guide transportation initiatives and development around I-81.

With many warehouses, trucking firms and highways, Cumberland County is a focal point of transportation improvements. Business leaders, local officials and residents have been pushing for improvements that could reduce truck traffic without locking out trucking or warehousing companies, a staple in the county’s economy.

About 12 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product passes through Central Pennsylvania every year, Rovegno said. Moving it more efficiently is a priority, he said. That’s accomplished by moving freight closer to its destination over rails, reducing the miles trucks have to haul freight. As freight transportation becomes more efficient, local governments will find it easier to plan for development along transportation corridors.

Cumberland County also has seen disputes between companies that want to build warehouses and residents who find the plan could bring more trucks onto their roads. Plans in North Middleton, Dickinson and South Middleton townships and other municipalities have caused such friction over the years. The townships border I-81 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, important north-south and east-west routes for trucking.

Warehouses, trucking and other traffic will continue no matter what, said George Pomeroy, director of the Institute for Public Service at Shippensburg University. That doesn’t mean trucking and logistics have to be a problem, he said.

“If communities have a chance to proactively plan for that type of development, then they can minimize those conflicts,” he said. “It’s a tough thing to plan after the fact.”

Better railway infrastructure is one piece of that planning. It also could reduce the air pollution that comes with being a highway hub by taking trucks off the highway, Rovegno said.

Norfolk Southern will take the lead on planning upgrades and new facilities, according to PennDOT. Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia are part of the application, too. The USDOT could award about $2 billion in competitive grants by February, said Erin Waters, a PennDOT spokeswoman.

“It is a highly competitive environment,” Rovegno said. “The federal government will have its hands full in trying to rate these (proposals) on their merits.”

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