PHOENIXVILLE — The results of a new study show more than $350 million in economic benefits over 30 years from the return of passenger rail service into Philadelphia.

And the fact that a similar study is now underway in Reading raises at least the possibility that stations in between — like Royersford, Pottstown and Birdsboro — could be included in the service.

Because the study, undertaken under the auspices of Mayor Peter Urscheler's task force, looks specifically at Phoenixville as part of a federal grant application, other communities are not included, said consultant Barry Cassidy.

That does not mean that they cannot undertake similar studies as part of a broader effort.

The fact that the Berks Alliance has undertaken one for Reading is a good example of that, Cassidy said.

“We are happy to receive such a glowing assessment of the benefits of restoring passenger rail service to Phoenixville," Urscheler said in a release about the study.

Phoenixville is eyeing the future increased property values of a town with a commuter train station as a way to generate revenues to fund the construction of a station and parking garage and thus leverage the grant.

Phoenixville recently submitted a grant application for $3,131,700 to the federal Railroad Administration to conduct planning and purchase land for the station and a 350-space parking garage and right of way for the Starr Street, Bridge Street intersection.

A public hearing for that grant application was held last month. 

Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C-based nonprofit, undertook the formal "Benefit-Cost" study under very specific parameters set by the U.S. Department of Transportation, said Michael Rodriguez, who conducted the student.

The largest benefits derive from property value appreciation, travel time savings and productive time for passengers using the train instead of auto.

Further, many benefits result from the reduction of 409.4 million vehicle-miles traveled over 30 years, including reduced traffic congestion, air pollution and wear-an-tear on the heavily used Route 422.

The group is working with both AMTRAK and SEPTA and will decide on which operator, or both, once the study has clarified the cost and track availability.

Capital costs estimates come in at about $130 million, with subsequent operating and maintenance costs, and that number would surely rise should the line extend to other stations.

One major cost obstacle to extension is the Black Rock Tunnel, located near the Schuylkill River off Dayton Street, behind Block Rock Cemetery.

Built in 1835 for the old Reading Railroad, the tunnel is only the third constructed in the U.S. and is the third oldest still in use. It is also narrow, with only one set of tracks traveling through.

One of the biggest hurdles for returning passenger service to the Schuylkill River valley is the fact that the rail lines are now owned, and heavily used for freight, by Norfolk Southern.

Sharing those tracks with passenger trains creates a scheduling headache as it is, managing the bottleneck at the Black Rock Tunnel only makes that headache bigger.

The solution of making the tunnel itself wider comes with a large cost and the larger question of who pays for it.

Pushing service upstream of the tunnel will likely require equally creative financing by the communities that also hope to benefit from hosting a station, Cassidy observed.

He said if rail service is returned, it may well happen in stages and that the Phoenixville effort is willing to work with other communities with a serious interest in doing the hard work necessary to find funding for extending it.

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