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'Significant milestone' for Pa.'s Amtrak revival

Plus, how Pa. is fueling a plastics boom.

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A daily newsletter by The logo of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen

Wednesday, December 6, 2023
In today's edition: Big train revival, Pennsylvania plastic, House hiatus, board takeover, Safehouse saga, cop count, and an A.I. Jimmy Stewart. 
Plans to resurrect long-gone Amtrak service between Scranton and New York City will receive a $500,000 boost from The Federal Railroad Administration, while identical FRA grants have been earmarked for the relaunch of a Reading to Philly connector and for several Ohio routes, including one that would connect Chicago to Pittsburgh via Columbus.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, both Pennsylvania Democrats, called the development "a significant milestone" in efforts to restore service between Scranton and NYC for the first time since 1970.

The grants, made available through an Infrastructure Act program, are for developing a scope, schedule, and cost estimate for the projects.

THE CONTEXT: The Scranton to NYC route would include stops in Mount Pocono, East Stroudsburg, and five towns in New Jersey. 

The one-way trip is around three hours long. Amtrak is proposing three trains daily in each direction, at speeds of up to 110 mph.

An Amtrak study ballparked the economic impact of restoring rail service between Scranton and New York at $84 million a year. 

The infrastructure deal signed into law by President Joe Biden includes billions of dollars for expanding U.S. rail service, something Amtrak is obviously keen to do. But Bloomberg reported in July that politics and state governments, in particular, will be a factor, just as they were when President Barack Obama cleared $8 billion for high-speed rail following the Great Recession.

“They don’t have a clue. Sometimes I lay in the bed at night and look at the ceiling and I can’t fall asleep because we had a triple shooting, a triple homicide, that night. And I’ve internalized it much to my detriment.”

Outgoing Philly Mayor Jim Kenney, criticized as indifferent at times during his tenure, reflecting in an exit interview with The Inquirer (paywall)
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Hiking at Hickory Run State Park in Carbon County, via Don H. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on IG, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

A person and dog are pictured walking away across a bridge surrounded by woods on one side and water on the other.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.BIG PLASTIC: Natural gas fracked in states like Pennsylvania is feeding a plastics manufacturing boom, creating precursors used in the process, like vinyl chloride, and raising East Palestine-related public safety concerns. One anti-plastics advocate told Inside Climate News people aren't clamoring for more of it — a glut of natural gas simply has energy companies looking for other ways to turn a profit.

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.HOUSE SCHEDULE: Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso reports the state House has set its schedule for the first half of 2024 and won't have a full voting session until March 18. Caruso notes the three-month gap roughly lines up with a Democratic vacancy in the chamber, tying the House at 101-101 after state Rep. John Galloway (D., Bucks) steps down — likely on Dec. 15 — to become a district judge. 

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.
NEW MAJORITY: The Central Bucks School Board's new Democratic majority immediately got to work this week dismantling some of the former GOP majority’s most controversial actions. The Inquirer (paywall) says that includes bans on Pride flags, “sexualized content” in books, and transgender athletes. The new solicitor will also attempt to whittle down a $700,000 payout to the former superintendent.
Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.'RELIGIOUS RIGHTS': The legal fight over a planned supervised drug consumption site in Philadelphia returned to court this week as backers look to keep the case alive and federal authorities look to quash it. The nonprofit behind the plan, Safehouse, is arguing that it has a religious right to care for people who use drugs, WHYY reports. The U.S. Department of Justice argues Safehouse isn't a registered religious entity.

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.POLICE PURGE: WPXI reports more Pittsburgh police have resigned this year (45 in total) than in any of the past 10 years. Combined with retirements, the bureau is losing more cops than it's adding, all on the heels of a new contract with a pay raise a union official says isn't competitive enough. One citizen police review board member suspects changes made by the chief might have more to do with it.
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UNSOLVED MYSTERY: Yesterday we told you about the 20-year mystery around Baltimore federal prosecutor Jonathan Luna, whose body was found in a Lancaster County creek. LNP (paywall) has an extensive exploration of the case, the theories, the true crime adherents, and the many unanswered questions still dogging the people who know the story best.

TRUE STORY: Harrisburg photojournalist Amanda Mustard is behind a lauded documentary on the crimes of her grandfather, Dr. William Flickinger, PennLive (paywall) reports. Watch the trailer here. The film is streaming now on the Max streaming service, formerly HBO Max.

SUIT SETTLED: Pittsburgh labor journalist Mike Elk has settled his lawsuit against the News Guild and secured a $10,000 donation to a local Latino resource group, per Poynter. Elk, a former Guild member, said he was retaliated against for raising the alarm on a sexual harassment scandal.

GUV THREATS: A 25-year-old Bedford County man is jailed on $500,000 bail for allegedly making threats against Gov. Josh Shapiro. Authorities say they intercepted an email from Blayk Bridges with the subject line “I’m going after the Governor of Pennsylvania” and found more threats, via WTAJ.

SLEEPY STEWART: Let the disembodied voice of Indiana, Pennsylvania, native and legendary Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart lull you to sleep. Variety reports a new bedtime story on the Calm app uses AI technology to recreate Stewart's voice, with the permission of his family and estate.
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