Leaders hopped on Amtrak to get project on track
By Chip Smedley, Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
County leaders believe Pennsylvania's elected officials in Washington have been helpful in keeping the Lancaster train station project from jumping the tracks.
Terry Kauffman, chairman of the Lancaster County Transportation Authority, credits Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey and Rep. Joe Pitts for what he sees as a ramped-up effort by Amtrak to finish the Capstone project.
Kauffman said plainly, "I don't doubt their involvement has been part of the issue. They have Amtrak in their cross hairs and I believe this increased scrutiny has made Amtrak double down its efforts."
Federal officials have followed the project since work began in 2009, and were instrumental in negotiations over Amtrak's "force account agreement"
The force account is the amount of funding set aside for Amtrak union work crews, which must be used on station projects. (See main story for further details).
Federal officials also reacted strongly after commuters were locked out of the station on two separate occasions last fall when Amtrak employees did not arrive in time to open the doors for riders of the service's first train.
In a letter to Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman, Casey wrote that the snafu "put my constituents at risk and caused considerable apprehension among the group." He demanded Amtrak take immediate corrective action and submit a written response outlining plans to prevent the mistake from happening again.
Federal elected officials also got involved last November, when an Amtrak police officer went to the city traffic commission to ask for the closure of the Queen Street entrance -- the main vehicular entrance since the station's construction in 1929.
The problem: Traffic flow was designed for the 40-foot buses used by Capitol Trailways. But after the traffic pattern was established and $400,000 spent to build canopies, Capitol Trailways went bankrupt.
Amtrak then contracted with Bieber Bus Service in Kutztown -- but Bieber uses 45-foot buses which could not negotiate the established traffic flow. So instead, they entered the station at the Queen Street entrance and used the taxi stand across from the station's front doors as a pickup/drop-off point, meaning bus passengers had to walk across the driveway through heavy traffic.
The revised plan called for buses to once again use the entrance near Duke Street, but drive directly to the front of the station so their doors would open on the sidewalk. They would then need to exit onto McGovern Avenue at Queen Street, forcing closure of the entrance. Cars approaching from the south would then be required to travel to Route 501 North, turn left onto McGovern Avenue, then cross two lanes of traffic to get to the only entrance to the station.
The proposal outraged officials, and the December meeting of the Lancaster Train Station Advisory Committee was standing-room-only. Casey, Toomey and Pitts sent strongly worded letters to Amtrak demanding they reconsider the proposal.
In the end, Amtrak withdrew the proposal and, after touring the route with Bieber Bus officials, determined that cutting curbs in the employee lot would enable buses to maneuver freely.
In a subsequent news release, Rep. Pitts said he was pleased with Amtrak's response. "The renovation project has already been an ordeal for rail passengers and these changes need to be completed quickly to minimize any further disruption," he said.
Casey spokesman John Rizzo said the senator first got directly involved to plan negotiations that resulted in the force account agreement, and has continued to actively monitor the project.
Then, when it was announced in November 2011 that the original station project did not include interior refurbishment, Rizzo said, "Our office responded by pushing Amtrak to work with PennDOT and the local community to address concerns about needed infrastructure improvements as well as cosmetic issues in the station."
The senator "was instrumental in bringing stakeholders together to evaluate these issues."
Amtrak's Marilyn Jamison, a senior director of major project partnerships, policy and development, got involved in the process during the row over the "force account agreement." Jamison became Amtrak's point person, and is now in charge of overseeing the Capstone project.
At the January meeting of the station advisory committee, it was Jamison who announced Amtrak would meet the deadline to finish plastering and painting the station interior.
"My reputation is on the line here," she declared. "My reputation is that I get things done and that is exactly what is going to happen here."
Tom Tillett, a spokesman for Rep. Pitts, credited Jamison for taking charge of the Capstone project.
"I believe she understands how important this project is to the community," Tillett said.
"The Keystone Corridor is one of the crown jewels of the Amtrak system," he continued, adding that Rep. Pitts has been writing letters and making calls to make sure "Amtrak understands how critical this project is to Lancaster."
Asked if he noticed an increased sense of urgency on the part of Amtrak, Kauffman, of the county transportation authority, said: "I think they're trying, I really do."
Yet, hampered by red tape, he added, "I think they're trying to move the Titanic."n