Editorials from around Pennsylvania:
HIGH-SPEED RAIL WORTHY OF DREAMING
The Altoona Mirror, May 22
It's impossible to predict whether a fully functional system of high-speed passenger rail service ever will come to this part of Pennsylvania.
However, for the Keystone State as a whole and other states in close proximity to the eastern seaboard, it would be great if there were high-speed-rail access to places like Washington, D.C., and New York.
Unfortunately, it's unlikely that such a convenience will become reality in this part of the country for most people currently living, even though high-speed rail service has been an on-again, off-again topic for about 50 years.
But there's nothing wrong with hoping and dreaming, especially for a rail center like Altoona, and for other places close by.
An article in Monday's Wall Street Journal provided information of interest to anyone with a railroad heritage or anyone who recognizes the value of improved and expanded transportation opportunities, especially on the rail front.
Under the headline "Amtrak puts $2 billion on the line," the beginning of Monday's Journal article reads as follows:
"The future of American high-speed rail is sitting in a building older than the Battle of Gettysburg: a cavernous factory that holds the first shells of a $2 billion fleet of Amtrak Acela trains due to begin running from Washington, D.C., to Boston two years from now.
"Even as Congress moves toward renewed debates over the future of both Amtrak and high-speed rail, the first of 28 new Acela train sets are starting to take shape here (Hornell, N.Y.)
"They are the first new generation of passenger trains on the railroad since the Acela's debut in 2000.
"For Amtrak, that means a chance to relaunch a service . still the nearest approximation in the U.S. to the high-speed trains that whisk travelers among major cities in Europe and Asia."
As anyone who has followed the high-speed rail issue knows, the biggest impediment to mimicking the capabilities in play overseas is the lack of a track system capable of accommodating sought-after train speeds — along the Northeast Corridor as well as to places like Harrisburg, Altoona, Johnstown and points west.
The reason to be pessimistic about high-speed rail eventually serving points in central and western Pennsylvania is the big outlay that would be necessary to upgrade — and expand — track and roadbeds.
Even if money ever would become available to begin the massive track-upgrade project, that mission no doubt would takes decades before all of the challenges were overcome.
Still, the staggering cost is the biggest immediate challenge — although this country always seems able to find the billions and trillions of dollars needed to fund objectives — not all of them worthy — that presidents and lawmakers seek to pursue.
According to Monday's Journal article, the new trains will have a top speed of 160 mph, up from the 150 mph of the current Acela fleet, but will be capable of reaching a speed of 186 mph with upgraded tracks.
Currently, curves on the Northeast Corridor prohibit top-speed travel, except in a few places. Meanwhile, unlike in Europe and Asia, today's passenger trains share tracks with freight and commuter trains, a situation that requires lower speeds.
For now, high-speed trains serving Altoona, Johnstown and points west and east are but hopes and dreams, but it's interesting that there are positive developments on that front.
When Congress debates Amtrak's future, it should get onboard with rail service enhancement, rather than undermine it.
ERIE FREE TAXES KEEPS PAYING OFF
Erie Times News, May 21
We celebrate this program yearly because of the immediate impact it has both for workers on the margins and on the local economy.
The United Way of Erie County aims to "crush" Erie's staggering poverty rates.
It funds organizations that meet immediate, basic needs, and in more recent years it has embraced a disciplined, long-term strategy via community schools that aim to remove barriers to learning that impede students' and families' escape from poverty.
For 12 years, it also has taken a more direct path by leveraging the tax code to ensure the region's low- and moderate-income wage earners claim the tax refunds they are due through the Erie Free Taxes program. The program pairs specially trained volunteers with tax filers with gross incomes of up to $54,000 to help them prepare their taxes for free and ensure they claim tax credits and other savings they are legally due.
We celebrate this program yearly because of the immediate impact it has both for workers on the margins and on the local economy. Now comes another reminder of just how much that effort is paying off.
As reporter Matthew Rink detailed, the United Way's Erie Free Taxes celebrated a milestone in the 2019 tax season — it has generated more than $100 million in tax refunds and savings since its inception. That number includes $88.4 million in taxpayer refunds and more than $13.1 million in tax preparation savings.
Cheryl Bates, program director of Erie Free Taxes, said tax returns jumped 6 percent in 2019, helping to push the total refunds and savings past the $100 million mark.
In all, volunteers processed 7,370 federal returns at 20 different locations across the county in 2019. The work generated $11.8 million in tax refunds, some via the earned income tax credit. Taxpayers saved more than $2 million in tax preparation fees.
The money freed up by Erie Free Taxes gives people an incentive to work. It gives them extra cash to spend on needed items. Bates said that typically, the money is spent locally on everyday costs like food, utility bills, mortgages, day care and transportation.
"It has a ripple effect and generates new economic growth," Bates said.
One drawback, Bates noted, as she has in years past, is that the program still suffers from a shortage of volunteers. That is understandable. It is not an easy gig. Volunteers must undergo what she called "intense" training and they have to be available over a 3 months-plus period.
Those who might be able to serve in this capacity should consider stepping up. Erie's poverty numbers, which rank among the highest in the state, impede too much human potential and act as a drag on our civic prospects. This program, though not glamorous, is powerful tool to intervene and transform lives, one check at a time.
MAKE 18 THE MINIMUM AGE FOR MARRIAGE IN PENNSYLVANIA
The York Dispatch, May 20
When Republican state Rep. Jesse Topper of Bedford County and Democratic counterpart Warren Perry of Bucks County recently offered up a bill that would create a minimum age for marrying in Pennsylvania, the first question might understandably be: "Don't we already have one?"
Kind of, but it falls far short of protecting all minors. Girls as young as 15 can obtain a marriage license in Pennsylvania with parental consent.
As a result, U.S. Census figures indicate, the state was home to more than 2,300 young girls — between the ages of 15 and 17 — who were married as of 2014.
Nationwide, the problem is even more unsettling. It is estimated as many as a quarter of a million girls under age 18, some as young as 12, were forced into marriage from 2000 to 2010.
That's astonishing, troubling and very simply wrong. And it must be changed — immediately, when it comes to Pennsylvania.
Topper and Perry's bill, and similar legislation pending in the state Senate, would make 18 the minimum age for obtaining a marriage license in Pennsylvania. This legislation needs to be expedited to Gov. Tom Wolf's desk for his prompt signature.
In a perfect world, such laws might not necessary. But we live in a very imperfect world, and such laws are badly needed in Pennsylvania, argues Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained At Last, a national organization dedicated to outlawing child marriage in the United States.
"Child marriage remains a real problem here in Pennsylvania because the laws are so weak here," Reiss told the Patriot-News this month. "A 2-year-old technically could marry. A middle school child is allowed to marry here. (This) is a really strong bill that would eliminate what the U.S. State Department calls a human rights abuse."
Abuse is right. These young girls aren't usually marrying high school classmates. The men are older — often much older — and, in many cases, turn out to be abusive. Consider this: Were it not for the loophole of a marriage certificate, the husbands in many of the relationships could be charged with statutory rape. That alone argues for the necessity of the legislation.
No, the odd and indefensible practices of radical religious factions do not merit an exclusion.
No, there are no exceptions in cases where a young girl displays advanced understanding or maturity beyond her years. (Those arguments, by comparison, wouldn't allow a 17-year-old to get around voting laws.)
In other words, there's really nothing to debate.
Unchained At Last is planning a public protest, known as a Chain-In, on June 26 in the Pennsylvania Capitol building's main rotunda in Harrisburg. State leaders should use this date as their deadline.
Instead of words of support for the protesters, lawmakers should instead greet them with signed legislation codifying into law what every right-thinking Pennsylvanian knows to be the right thing to do: Protect young teenagers from being coerced into wedlock.
MAKE FIRM PAY FOR OIL LEAK
The Citizen's Voice, May 22
The U.S. Coast Guard achieved a major milestone last week, finally containing an oil spill that has been contaminating the Gulf of Mexico for nearly 15 years.
Taylor Energy, the company that the Coast Guard holds responsible for the problem, rejected a Coast Guard order to contain the spill and filed a lawsuit in federal court in December attempting to thwart the agency's own containment effort.
The suit contended that the company contracted by the Coast Guard, Couvillon Group, lacked the expertise necessary for the job. But Coast Guard Capt. Kristi Luttrell announced Thursday that a system installed by Couvillon 12 miles off Louisiana has collected about 30,000 gallons, 715 barrels, of oil in about a month.
Taylor Energy had claimed that almost no oil was present at the leak site, which developed due to damage to an oil platform caused by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. An independent analysis found that between 1.5 million and 3.5 million gallons leaked into the Gulf of Mexico from the site, resulting in the Coast Guard order to Taylor Energy to contain the spill or face fines of up to $40,000 per day.
Salvaged oil from the spill is government property, and the Coast Guard has sold it to offset Couvillon's bill for the project.
Now that the leak is at least contained, the Coast Guard should move aggressively in court to transfer the financial responsibility for the project to the company. And it should ensure that the company plugs the well or wells to ensure that the leak is not just contained, but eliminated.
THIS PENNSYLVANIA LAW IS KILLING PEOPLE
Easton Express Times, May 12
Pennsylvania's anti-texting law is a joke. A bad one.
By itself, without a complimentary ban on other uses of hand-held phones by drivers, it's all but unenforceable. We have to think police officers are up to speed on the law's limitations.
Who's to say a driver stopped for suspected texting — nudge, wink — wasn't just checking an incoming call, dialing up someone, looking at email, scrolling through social media?
Those activities, after all, are legal on Pennsylvania highways.
It's time that they weren't.
Texting and other phone use that take a driver's eyes and attention off the road make up a significant part of distracted driving-related injuries and fatalities. It's difficult to know exactly how much, but the toll attributed to distraction is troubling.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says distracted driving was a factor in 3,166 deaths in 2017. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control boils that down further: Each day nine people are killed in the U.S. and more than 1,000 are injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.
The accounts of such tragedies are easier to dismiss when they're part of a statistical column of numbers. When they happen in our backyard, the senselessness of this behavior is fully imaginable, the sacrifice real.
Last week a truck driver from California apparently missed the flashing warning signs of roadwork ahead, state police said, and plowed into stopped traffic on Interstate 78 in Berks County, killing a New Jersey couple on their way to Pittsburgh to get married. Police said the driver may have been distracted by a phone conversation. The driver's sister called Berks County 911 to say she was talking with her brother on the phone when she heard a commotion and was disconnected.
Dylan Groff admitted in Northampton County Court that he was distracted on Sept. 22, 2017, when his car left the road on Route 248 in Palmer Township and killed 12-year-old Emma Raymondo, who was walking home from a store with her siblings. Police believe Groff was on his phone at the time of the crash and probably texting; prosecutors said they could not prove that in court. At his recent sentencing hearing, Groff said he was distracted but didn't identify the source. He was sentenced to nine to 23 months in county prison.
Emma's mother, Kayleen Raymondo, is actively campaigning for an expansion of Pennsylvania's phone-use ban. Other states have taken this step, including New Jersey, realizing that a text-only ban is incomplete — and an invitation to to flout the law.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed a bill by state Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe-Pike, to outlaw all hand-held phone use by drivers. Hands-free calling with Bluetooth technology or a docking station would be permitted. Phone-based GPS systems could be used if they are attached to a surface. The fine for a conviction would be $200, a needed upgrade from $50 for texting under the current law. The Senate should keep the teeth in this proposal and send it to Gov. Tom Wolf.
Saving lives and avoiding preventable accidents requires a commitment by drivers to minimize all distractions, not just phone use. But tapping and talking on a phone while driving — along with texting, under the cover of a weak law — are biggies. This type of mindlessness is killing innocent people, some of whom aren't even on the road.