High-speed passenger rail should be full-speed ahead as far as those at a state Department of Transportation hearing Tuesday were concerned.
A representative of the Empire State Passengers Association and several others called for the state to adopt a plan to upgrade the entire rail corridor from Albany to Niagara Falls to handle 110 mph trains.
“In other states, passenger rail improvements have boosted economic development in other corridors,” said Tony Rudman, Capital Region coordinator for the Empire State Passengers Association.
A number of other speakers called for including a pedestrian-bike lane when the 148-year-old Livingston Avenue Bridge across the Hudson River between Albany and Rensselaer is replaced, as it would have to be to handle high-speed rail service.
“The walkway is a necessity, not an amenity,” said Dominick Calsolaro of Albany.
Tuesday’s session, held by DOT and the Federal Railroad Administration at the College of Nanoscale Science and Technology, was the first in a series of public hearings on the environmental impacts of the state’s plans for high-speed passenger rail service across upstate.
The environmental study “will position the state to get future high-speed rail funding from the federal government,” said DOT spokesman Beau Duffy.
Since 2010, New York state has received about $350 million in federal high-speed rail funding, and is using that money to lay groundwork.
“There’s a real benefit in reducing travel times and getting more people to use the train, get them out of their cars,” Duffy said.
The federal funding has helped start projects that will prepare the system for high-speed passenger service, including several projects in the Capital Region that will start construction this year.
Projects expected to start this year and be completed by 2017 include the second track along the 17 miles between Albany and Schenectady, construction of the new Schenectady rail station, and addition of a fourth passenger track at the Rensselaer Amtrak station.
Elsewhere, signal upgrades are taking place between Rensselaer and Poughkeepsie, rail improvements are planned in Syracuse to reduce freight-passenger conflicts, and new rail stations are being planned in Rochester and Niagara Falls.
“All the base-line improvements are necessary to get to the next level,” Duffy said.
In the most-discussed scenarios for high-speed rail, it would cost between $5.5 billion and $6.3 billion to build dedicated third or fourth tracks parallel to the existing CSX Transportation tracks across upstate. The cost would depend on whether the tracks are rated for travel at 90 mph or 110 mph.
Whether it is actually built would depend on federal funding becoming available, Duffy said.
Ridership last year on the Empire Corridor was 1.4 million, a number officials think could nearly double by 2035 if improvements are made.
If it becomes reality, high-speed rail would mean faster service from both directions to Schenectady as well as faster trains passing through the cities and villages of the Mohawk Valley.
The Albany hearing was the first, but hearings are planned across the state this month. Another will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. March 11 at the Utica railroad station. Written comments will be accepted through March 24.
Duffy said the next step after the hearings will be preparation of a final environmental impact statement, which will take six to 12 months.