High-speed rail may get on track in area

Local officials have varied opinions about recently revealed proposals for a high-speed passenger train service to run through Montgomery County.

While some local officials mentioned the potential economic benefits of a faster rail service, some were concerned about safety near the tracks and the cost of the work.

According to a draft environmental impact statement, created by the Federal Railroad Administration and the state Department of Transportation, officials are evaluating proposed system improvements to intercity passenger rail services along the 463-mile Empire Corridor.

The corridor connects Pennsylvania (Penn) Station in New York City with Niagara Falls Station in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

The state DOT said five train service options for the Empire Corridor were considered in an environmental review – a Draft Environmental Impact Statement – which was required for federal funding.

Under one option, trains would be allowed a top speed of 125 miles per hour. The current top speed allowed west of Schenectady is 79 mph.

Proposals

One proposal, Base Alternative, would continue existing Amtrak service with some operational and service improvements.

Eight capital improvement projects that have been funded under grants, in addition to normal maintenance, are part of the proposal. None of the changes, according to the report, would affect Montgomery County rail lines.

The capital cost for the Base Alternative is $290 million.

Another option, Alternative 90A, consists of 20 additional capital improvement projects identified for potential grant funding, along with a maximum authorized speed of 90 mph.

However, according to the DEIS, trains would be expected to slow down while going through Fonda and Canajoharie, hitting 50 mph and 60 mph, respectively.

A third railroad line to the north side of the current railroad tracks would be installed in some areas under the proposal, including in Montgomery County. According to the draft, impacts in these areas could be contained within the current right-of-way, but there is potential for minimal impact on local waterways.

Upgrades to the Amsterdam train station also would be made, such as a new station building, Americans with Disabilities Act compliant counters, restrooms, ramps and elevators and a new high-level platform.

The projected cost for the Alternative 90A, according to the DEIS, would be $1.66 billion.

Alternative 90B has the suggestions made in 90A, but includes a dedicated third main passenger track – running from roughly Schenectady to Buffalo. It also would add a fourth passenger track in five separate locations, including in Montgomery County. An overhead pedestrian bridge at the Amsterdam station also is part of the proposal.

The suggestions in the proposal could have an effect on wooded property and roads along the Mohawk River and Route 5. The proposal also would require about 35 waterway crossings, one going over the North Chuctanunda Creek. According to the draft, depending on design, there would be a potential to impact the water from the construction of new tracks, improvements to the station and increased train traffic.

The cost for Alternative 90B is estimated to be $5.58 billion.

Alternative 110 includes track improvements from 90A and 90B, as well as tracks to support up to 110 mph trains. It also would realign several existing roadways adjacent to the railroad right-of-way over a total length of roughly 7 miles. Some will be minor realignments, the draft said, while others would require changes in excess of 50-feet horizontally, and could potentially involve other properties.

This proposal could affect properties on or near Route 5, such as Old Fort Johnson, the Fort Johnson Fire Station, the Fonda Post Office and the Fonda Municipal Building.

The total capital cost is expected to be $6.25 billion for Alternative 110.

Finally, Alternative 125 would lead to a new high-speed rail line between Albany-Rensselaer and Buffalo with a maximum speed of 125 mph, while maintaining existing Amtrak services.

The faster train service would not be available at the Amsterdam train station. It would be available at the Albany-Rensselaer and Syracuse stations.

The new line would run through the southwest corner of the town of Charleston, and through the towns of Root, Canajoharie and Minden. According to the report, the new line could pass through the Canajoharie Country Club, but predominately would pass through forested and agricultural land. There may be areas where the tracks would cross roads, but property displacements would be minimal, according to the report.

The capital cost for Alternative 125 is expected to be $14.71 billion.

Interest, concern

Matthew L. Ossenfort, the county executive for Montgomery County, said he is interested in the plan.

“Based off what I know now, I think these rails could be a catalyst for economic growth,” Ossenfort said. “I’m excited about it. I think high-speed rail is the wave of the future.

However, Ossenfort stressed it was important to be open to the proposal, but mindful of the effects on the local area.

Roy Dimond, District 3 Legislator, said the idea of high speed trains going through Fonda is a concern.

“It would be very disconcerting,” Dimond said.

Dimond said he would prefer if any high speed trains would use the south side of the Mohawk River, which is not as heavily populated.

In the end, Dimond said he would want to let the public have a say.

District 4 Legislator Ryan B. Weitz said he was interested in the prospect of high speed rail lines in the county, but cautious.

“I think being in Montgomery County, we are cut lengthwise by a lot of different ways of transportation,” Weitz said. “…It allows for a lot of great benefits, however, all different sides need to be taken into account.”

District 5 Legislator Terry Bieniek said he would be curious about the development, but expressed concern as to where the funds would come from.

District 7 Legislator Barbara Wheeler said she was unsure about the proposals.

“I have concerns whenever taxpayer money goes to something that has an uncertainty,” Wheeler said.

David Chan, project manager with NYSDOT, said DOT and FRA are following a two-tier process. The first tier – the current phase they are in – is to determine which proposal is acted upon. DOT and FRA will ultimately choose which proposal to go ahead with.

The second tier will include an in-depth look at possible effects from the chosen proposal and how best to implement it, Chan said.

DOT is holding public hearings to get opinions from residents in the state, he said. They are planned in Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, Utica and Poughkeepsie.

Chan said he hopes to address concerns from residents this summer, before a final environmental assessment is done in the fall for the chosen plan. After that, DOT would need to find funding for the proposal.

“Securing that funding is going to be the key,” Chan said. “If everything fell into place? We could conceivably start work in as short as a few years.”

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.