The longest mile: PennDOT helps railroads handle ‘last mile’ traffic

33rd-street-bridge-pittsburgh-pennsylvaniaPost Gazette

By Len Barcousky

Diesel exhaust and dust from trucks carrying thousands of loads of coal to the Homer City Generating Station had turned trees along the route black.

Those trips — and the accompanying pollution — were eliminated after the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad rebuilt a former Baltimore & Ohio spur line in 2005. Each train can deliver the equivalent of several hundred truckloads of coal to the electricity-generating plant in Center, Indiana County.

The overgrown line to the generating station was restored with the help of a grant from the Rail Transportation Assistance Program, or RTAP, which is managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

“This project benefited the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, but it also meant improvements in the quality of life for the broader community,” railroad executive Jerry Vest said. “It took thousands and thousands of trucks off the road.”

Mr. Vest is senior vice president for government and industry affairs for Genesee Wyoming Railroad Services Inc., the parent of the Buffalo Pittsburgh.

RTAP funding, raised through state borrowing, has been augmented in recent years with Rail Freight Assistance Program, or RFAP, grants. Money for the RFAP projects is being raised through higher wholesale gasoline taxes, auto registration charges and driver’s license fees. Those increases were part of the state’s 2013 transportation bill, known as Act. 89. The law was passed to raise more money for road and bridge repairs, public transit and a multi-modal fund, which covers ports and waterways, freight and passenger rail, aviation, bicycle and pedestrian projects.

“It’s very important to have a transportation system that supports all modes and connections,” PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said. “Pennsylvania has a rich history with railroads, and we see dividends throughout our economy from support of freight rail.”

Major freight carriers CSX, Norfolk Southern and Canadian National operate in southwestern Pennsylvania as do 16 regional and short-line railroads.

The most recent round of RTAP and RFAP grants brought state spending on rail improvement projects to more than $167 million since January 2011.

The state funds can cover up to 70 percent of a rail-related project’s costs.

The latest group of 39 projects approved by the Pennsylvania State Transportation Commission received $36 million in funding. The improvements cover a variety of undertakings, ranging from rehabilitating a railroad bridge to replacing turnouts, or switches.

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