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Moving Mountains

The sight of freight trains rumbling past his childhood home in Warren, Pa., gave way to visions of urban maglev systems for Richard Peltz ’78. A lifelong love of transportation, coupled with a deep respect for the environment, helped channel a decidedly productive career.

In December, 2002, Peltz received a presidential appointment as alternate co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Created in 1965, the ARC is a partnership of thirteen state governors working with the chair and co-chair toward the economic development of the Appalachian region. “We’re an agency that looks at the most basic of human needs,” said Peltz. Money is allocated to critical areas: telecommunications, health, education, transportation, environment, entrepreneurship for local jobs, creating local leadership, and improving the infrastructure of water and sewage management. “If you don’t have these things in place, how in the world can you attract new investment into the area?”

Rick Peltz

Rick Peltz next to an NS diesel locomotive

In his new position as ARC co-chair, Peltz notes how the Appalachian region has improved since the 1960s. Per capita income has increased, the poverty rate is cut in half, and the high school graduation rate, once at half the national average, is now at that average. Self-help programs in Virginia have brought in water and sewer lines at a 60 percent savings by having the residents do the work themselves. In Ohio, the Appalachian Center for Higher Education used a relatively small amount of money, in the thousands of dollars, to result in double-digit increases in the college-going rate out of high schools. “With the small amount of money and what we’ve been able to do, the list goes on and on,” said Peltz. “It’s a great feeling.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation hired Peltz in 1995 as the deputy secretary for local and area transportation. Responsible for all areas of state transportation, Peltz was also the governor’s lead on magnetic levitation initiatives and led a mission to examine the maglev system in Germany. 

This resulted in PennDOT’s ongoing research into an urban maglev system. He was also behind the current development of a high speed rail system in the Keystone Corridor from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, and eventually on to New York City.

“About four years ago, we instituted the largest demonstration of sensoring devices on one hundred Pittsburgh Port Authority buses. It’s a driver augmentation system to warn if a car is too close, if they might be sideswiped, or if someone is about to walk into the bus,” said Peltz. “Believe it or not, that happens.”

Rick Peltz

Rick Peltz at the control panel at the Transrapid Maglev Test Facility in Emsland, Germany

A 1978 graduate majoring in political science, Peltz volunteered in his senior year to help a neighbor, Bill Clinger, run for Congress. He became the campaign’s master scheduler within a month. With a previous commitment for the summer to be a compliance officer for the forest service and an upcoming internship in the fall, Peltz turned down Clinger’s request to work for him through the election. After graduation, he called to congratulate Clinger on his win and was offered a job.

For the next sixteen years, Peltz ran the congressional office. His forte was economic development, and he became familiar with state agencies, chambers of commerce, industrial development corporations, and got to know the staff of the ARC. His specialty was transportation: he worked on roadway appropriations matters and saved some railroad lines that were being abandoned by Conrail.

Peltz was born in St. Marys, and lived in Warren, Pa., from fourth grade until college. His love of trains was stimulated early by his grandfather, a ticket agent in New York City for the New York, New Haven, and Seaboard Coastline railroads. “The Union Pacific mainline went right around the homestead, so I was always out there watching the freight trains go by,” said Peltz.

While in college, he held various jobs including a janitor in the hospital, an orderly at a nursing home, and with the National Ski Patrol. During summers, he worked as a compliance officer in the Forest Service. “Essentially, I was a law enforcement officer, collecting money to use campsites and facilities across the national forest and the Klondike district of the Alleghenies.” The summer before his senior year, he received a phone call ordering him to report to the Forest Service headquarters in Warren the next day to be shipped out to California to fight wildfires.

Rick Peltz

Scene from the late '70s: Peltz taking a quick break while fighting the "Hog" fire in Klamath National Forest in Northern California

The next morning, Peltz was given a sleeping bag and firefighting clothes, put on a plane and flown to West Virginia to pick up more people. All twenty flew to Milwaukee and on to Idaho, then transferred to a 727. In Oregon, they were loaded onto a truck and driven to Northern California that afternoon. For the next three to four weeks, Peltz fought fires. He didn't think he would make it back to IUP in time for the semester, but just before Labor Day the weather changed and helped put the fires out.

“We were laying line about six to seven thousand feet above sea level,” said Peltz. “These were the biggest trees I ever saw in my life, ponderosa pines from one hundred fifty to two hundred feet high. The fire came up one night and crossed our line, which was about nine D-9 bulldozers wide. It crowned, jumping from treetop to treetop, and we had to evacuate. We weren't safe until about 3:00 a.m. I’ll never forget the smoke and yellow jackets and scorpions. I never expected to see scorpions at 6000 feet in Northern California. You always had to check your sleeping bag before you got in it.” He made it back home just in time for school that fall.

Peltz lives in Mechanicsburg with his wife, Connie Mead Peltz ’79. “I’ve been very blessed with my opportunities,” he said. “Married my sweetheart from IUP, and three kids later I’m doing just fine.”