(Photo by Ron Shawley)
Donald Bonk, an economic development consultant and Johnstown native, makes the drive from Johnstown to Allegheny County at least twice a week.
During a recent trip, he spoke about what he sees as one of the biggest obstacles to revitalization for Cambria County: The lack of transportation options to Pittsburgh.
“We had a meeting with [County Executive] Rich Fitzgerald, and the things most important to him are jobs and workforce development for Allegheny County,” said Bonk. “But he recognizes the need for regional thinking.”
Bonk, who owns Good Future Innovations, is also an economic development consultant at Carnegie Mellon University. He knows both Johnstown and Pittsburgh well, and thinks each would benefit from being better connected one another.
But it’s not clear whether there’s strong enough motivation to get buses or trains running between the two biggest cities in Western Pennsylvania.
“It won’t be an easy road.”
Driving from Johnstown to Pittsburgh is a bit too long for most people to make it a daily commute. If you take the turnpike, it’s about an hour and 40 minutes; on more rural Route 22, about an hour and a half.
The current non-car options for making the trip are less than optimal for business travel, Bonk said. Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian train, the singular and most convenient option for full-day commuters, leaves Pittsburgh at 7:30 a.m., arrives in Johnstown at 9:30 a.m and makes the return trip to Pittsburgh at 6:30 p.m.
Bonk isn’t satisfied.
“What’s amazing to us is that from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, there are a dozen trains a day,” Bonk said. “The ability, or lack of ability, to get back and forth creates a lot of frustration.”
Bonk says Allegheny County officials have been receptive to the idea of some kind of regional transit between Johnstown and Pittsburgh, but there are numerous obstacles aside from the distance itself.
Norfolk Southern owns the right of way for commodities along the train route the Pennsylvanian travels.
“Even if the money and all these other issues came together perfectly, there would still be all the issues to work out with them,” Bonk said.
But he sees a better route as a potential boon for communities like Altoona, Greensburg and Latrobe, not just Johnstown.
“Realistically there is a lot of money involved in approvals that are in the hands of private businesses,” he admitted. “It won’t be an easy road, no matter what happens.”
There have been recent efforts to make connections within the business community. In June, about two dozen business people went on a road trip to Johnstown that was sponsored by the Pittsburgh Technology Council. They toured several of Johnstown’s biggest companies, including JWF Industries, Martin Baker, Concurrent Technologies Corp. and Problem Solutions. The goal was to allow the Pittsburghers to envision how these companies could help their own businesses.
Perks vs. price
It’s not going to be an easy sell, however. Johnstown’s population continues to decline, and it’s been in Act 47 distressed status for 25 years. Cambria County and the city of Johnstown have had difficulty attracting new businesses (the New York Times recently wrote about the exodus of retail jobs from the area).
With cutbacks in defense spending, the multibillion-dollar contracts that the late congressman John Murtha brought to the region have dried up, leaving many highly-skilled workers with little choice than to move away or commute to a job in Pittsburgh, Bonk said.
He thinks Cambria County could retain younger workers who are attracted to a lower cost of living and more rural lifestyle if only they had a way to get to Pittsburgh more easily.
“Throw in the sporting events: If they’re driving, and there was better transit there, they could hang out in Pittsburgh all weekend and leave their cars at home,” he said.
The other sector Bonk says would benefit from easier transit to Pittsburgh are the elderly. His mother travels to Pittsburgh often for doctor’s appointments, and if she could take a bus or a train there, it would make it much less stressful.
Bonk admits that the challenge is demonstrating the need for something that doesn’t yet exist. There isn’t a large community clamoring for an express train between Johnstown and Pittsburgh, and while his theories of who would use such a transit system may be right, it’s hard to persuade PennDOT and other agencies to make multi-million dollar investments on a hunch.
“Is there enough to do it on a sustained basis? We don’t know. Fifteen years ago probably not, but with more people comfortable working remotely, maybe we appeal to that worker who commutes to Pittsburgh one or two days a week instead of five,” he said.
But, he adds, for all its booming tech and robotics industries, Pittsburgh isn’t for everyone.
“Pittsburgh is only going to get more successful over time, but it needs talent to keep it functioning. It’s important to realize not everyone who works there wants to live in Downtown Pittsburgh.”