The return of passenger rail service could mean the end of Daphne City Councilman John Lake’s long road commute, or at least an extra spot in his van.
Each workday, Lake is part of a six-person carpool, which travels the roughly 50 miles to Pascagoula for jobs at Ingalls Shipbuilding. A self-described fan of Amtrak, Lake said he would be enthusiastic about a return of the Sunset Limited or a similar line to the Mobile area.
“I think it would be highly beneficial as a commuter train,” Lake said. “I think it would find a very large commuter base in Mobile.”
In addition to the group of workers who commute from the Eastern Shore each day, Lake said Ingalls enjoys a large employee base from Atmore and Pensacola, Florida, as well.
“The difference between the train and vehicle is the train is so much more comfortable,” he said. “Once you’ve ridden on a train you’re hooked.” After a Dec. 4 planning meeting in Mobile with a group of local mayors, the Southern Rail Commission is hoping more share Lake’s enthusiasm. Daily rail commuting was part of the discussion from the Louisiana Super Region Rail Authority.
The organization said a route under construction from New Orleans to Baton Rouge would help connect more than 22,000 St. James Parish workers with “1 million jobs in the corridor.” In addition, according to information provided by the authority, passenger rail service would lead to a $6,800 reduction in transportation costs and a 12 percent increase in annual income.
Mayors representing cities with a rail presence in Alabama and Mississippi touted the economic benefits passenger rail has brought to their communities.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said the city began thinking about revitalizing its train station along the Crescent Line after the devastating tornado of April 27, 2011. Tuscaloosa is renovating its Alberta-area station as part of an $8 million public-private partnership.
The station, which is less than a mile from the University of Alabama and connects to pedestrian and bike routes, has been beneficial to the city, even though it’s the lowest-performing station along a line that travels from New Orleans to New York City.
“It has created tourism in an area of the city … that hasn’t been living up to its potential,” Maddox said. “We want to be a part of the revitalization of stations along the Crescent Line.”
Mayor Johnny DuPree of Hattiesburg, said the city spent $10 million in 1998 to renovate a downtown train station that was originally built in 1910. Since then the station has almost paid for itself with $7 million in economic development. DuPree said businesses have popped up around the station near the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University. The city has seen a 60 percent increase in ridership on the Crescent Line, he added.
“If you start with the heart, then the rest of the body will be better,” DuPree said of the downtown redevelopment.
In Mobile, questions remain about the cost of a new terminal, or whether the GM&O building could be upgraded for future passenger rail service. Commissioners have said Mobile would be an integral part of any future rail progress, as it would be featured as part of both a new Sunset Limited line and also connect to the Crescent Line in Birmingham.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson said it’s too early to speculate on cost or where a future terminal might be located if there is a new dedication to a Gulf Coast line.
“This is so preliminary,” he said. “Studies still have to be done.”
There is currently no timetable for when, or if, service will be available, Stimpson said. He added that the city has no control over the schedule.
Pascagoula Mayor Jim Blevins said his city is ready for any eventual expansion of a Gulf Coast line that would travel from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Florida. Blevins said Pascagoula has a “gorgeous” station in its downtown area, which is currently being used as an art museum.
“Yes, we are ready,” he said. “At least, we want you to think that right now.”
Lake said he believes a new passenger rail line along the Gulf Coast would also benefit the returning cruise industry in Mobile. On a rail trip to Chicago, Illinois, Lake said, he ran into several passengers who were taking the train home after being on a cruise out of New Orleans.
The new federal transportation bill was a source of excitement for the commission, as Joe McAndrew, policy director with Transportation for America, said it marked the first time passenger rail has been included as a part of a five-year transportation authorization bill.
In addition, the bill allows for the creation of a Gulf Coast rail working group, which will be allocated up to $500,000 per year to study needs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, McAndrew told commissioners. The bill also offers a $90 million to $500 million grant opportunity for capital improvements for stations, as well as grants for assistance with operating expenses for new lines for three years. He said a Gulf Coast line is a priority.
There is one hitch, though: there is no money in the section currently available for rail. Instead, McAndrew said, they would have to lobby for the money each year.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) said he is skeptical that any money from the bill would find its way to areas underserved by passenger rail, like the Gulf Coast. He said the money allocated for any of these proposals should be evenly distributed because it comes from taxes on gasoline and people all over the country pay them.
He said proponents “better demonstrate” to him the benefit mass transit will have for his constituents, as they pay the gas tax like everyone else.
“Mass transit can’t be in one area and not others,” Byrne said.