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Hope for Rail is a Scrappy One
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Wilkes-Barre Downtown

Question: Should there be a pie in that sky?

Most Luzerne County residents, politicians, and even business leaders simply cannot comprehend the transformation that will absolutely take place over the next 25 - 100 years. Wilkes-Barre today is a depressed bankrupt city where the citizens are so poor and scared the loudest online voices that dominate are those meticulously bemoaning everyone's success as all part of some corruption conspiracy that never ends. Most Wilkes-Barrians who pay attention to these things would be served well by a reminder that in normal economies people don't sit around assessing who has a comfortable job and who does not, nor do they develop deep state theories to explain why people who bothered to acquire better educations and develop as better people, have them. Such thinking is a grunt's lot and in better days,Wilkes-Barre persona was, and will, exist beyond it.

When I write that Luzerne County, and Wilkes-Barre in particular, will be central hub to high speed rail system between Philadelphia and New York City, I'm not joking. This will absolutely happen.

Sure it would happen well enough without this website promoting an imagination for it, but I admit from an egotistical standpoint, I love prescient writing. On opening day in 20-whatever-the-hecks people will stand over my grave wondering how the heck I knew .

With a 1.5 to 2 hour commute time by rail (which would not be the pivot for an automobile commute because people make use of rail time for personal and professional pursuits while riding rail that they cannot while managing a drive), there is no reason downtown Wilkes-Barre cannot become a New York City bedroom community of middle managers and executives. With quality affordable colleges and universities already in the city limits, there is no reason the same system could not fuel a student's depot.

And by the way, that 1.5 or 2 hours can be expected to shrink to even less as technologies improve. Personally I'm shooting for the "one hour" dream. Going downtown might no longer mean a trip to Public Square (or, that "other thing", giggity giggity) so much as it might mean a trip to Bryant Park.

Things culturally do need to change locally and even nationally before the first hints of traction toward this fantastic rail prediction begin to appear. I believe in certain driving events that will transpire, among other things, that will encourage and cement these changes. Wilkes-Barre and Luzerne County essentially collapsing might even be one of the first for example. More broadly, a change in how we view nationally funded transportation systems and transportation funding, will happen. Roads and airports stunted our understanding that high speed rail is great for regional intercity travel in certain areas, and if done right for each one, maybe all. But I am convinced we will come to appreciate its efficiencies with the right - and inevitable - prompting. At which point, it will be game on.

Cashing in Rail Might Cash in Rail

That is why it is so exciting to read the Times Leader's report on the local debate to keep or sell old rail for scrap. Selling it might mean an instant infusion of cash (however quickly that infusion's impact might evaporate), particularly when common road thieves seem poised to take it and convert it to cash for themselves whether it is officially sold or not. I mean, it's just sitting there unused and seemingly without purpose - it almost defies common sense not to. At first blush.

But, yielding to some of that higher thinking and emotional intelligence, which thank god, council member Rick Williams is applying, it isn't that easy. If you're not stuck in a grunt mentality that things are, are the way things will always be, you realize there is more value to that unused track than meets the eye. If you get rid of it you might be tripling the cost of a future rail system that might otherwise avoid the re-allocation of right away rights.

To be fair, the question of what might actually wind up constraining future rail development or not if old rail is torn out and sold is a little unknown right now. The Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority has twice now halted on moving forward with the sale idea, wisely taking the time to sort the question out. First it needs to be established if Luzerne County might really lose its precious right of way inroads if they sell, and if so, whether or not the dream certainty of cost for future rail is worth preserving if in fact the answer is yes.

Or in a more moving question whether the answer is something in between. If the rail can be sold, for example, can Luzerne County maintain its future grip on rail by converting the same right of ways to a trail system? Can a token rail network be built of a single track with a scheduled handcar delivering newspapers from one end of the system to the other once a year be implemented?

The latter idea is probably a bit ridiculous but if it gets the job done, fine. The trail idea however, is a good one. We have one here in Buffalo and it's amazing. You wonder "who uses trails" and figure they are a waste of time, until you see one fully developed. Living in Buffalo I am privy to our local trail system that starts here across the street from my loft and stretches for miles until you hit the river from where you can spot the Canadian shoreline. And people use it . It's teaming with walkers, bicyclists, families, joggers, and platoons of all kinds of friends during warm weather. Because it terminates here in Buffalo at a local light rail and bus station, it's a also a viable transportation solution to downtown.

Trails are not abstract afterthoughts, they are tangible assets.

The LCRA is looking into it. To me, the question and the conclusion are a bellwether for what politicians in the area really think about the future of Luzerne County. If they are convinced the area is so hopping for its next cash fix, however inconsequential said fix is, they are willing to give up that hope, that's bad news. Maybe despite such a decision rail will ultimately develop anyway but at a steeper taxpayer cost and more tragically at the cost of even more county esteem.

Keep the rail as a token, guard it, re-purpose the right of way if that results in the same outcome, and leaders effectively nod that the area is rife with its local talent and confidence for its future. Even if the eventual rail network is built nowhere near these existing tracks, their preservation illuminates just how little Luzerne County is willing to risk a certain death spiral for the area's long term future.

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