Officials are moving full speed ahead on plans to bring passenger rail service back to Mobile, after the Southern Rail Commission awarded the city $125,000 from Federal Railroad Administration funds for the design of a new station.
The grant was part of more than $2 million the SRC awarded several cities in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana for various passenger rail station projects, Chairman Greg White said.
“We approached the Railroad Administration and our congressional delegation about allowing the funds to be used for stations,” White said. “After several months of review and negotiations back and forth they agreed.”
The SRC then requested proposals from cities and awarded the money based on them. In total, $2.4 million was awarded and a portion of that was split between Birmingham, Anniston, Tuscaloosa and Mobile, White said. The money will be spent over the next two years, he said.
In its application, Mobile asked for $125,000 from the SRC with a $125,000 “cash” match and a $25,000 “in-kind” match. The total budget for the master plan and design would be $275,000.
In the application, project manager Brad Christensen wrote the project would help enhance the city’s downtown area.
“The city will partner with a professional consulting firm to develop a station area master plan and associated architectural designs for a station platform, building, parking area and pedestrian access bridge,” Christensen wrote. “Mobile is geographically and economically positioned to add critical passenger rail infrastructure capacity to the federally designated Gulf Coast HSR corridor. This project would allow the city to take the first steps toward station reconstruction to ready the city for the reintroduction of intercity passenger rail along the Gulf Coast.”
This grant award brings more momentum to discussions of bringing passenger rail service back to the area since the Sunset Limited was halted due to a low number of riders and track damage from Hurricane Katrina. Amtrak studies have shown that a simple extension of the City of New Orleans line to Orlando would bring the greatest number of riders.
In the grant application, Christensen detailed some of the Port City’s history with passenger rail. He wrote that passenger rail ran through the city in the 1950s and 1960s before being shut down in the 1970s. There was sporadic service in the 1980s, with more regular service following in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“Efforts by the city of Mobile in the last several years have led to significant investment in the proposed station area and a renewed interest in passenger rail service,” he wrote. “The planning and design activities proposed herein will build upon these efforts and ensure that Mobile is ready to move forward with construction of a new passenger rail station.”
Mayor Sandy Stimpson also wrote a letter of support.
“This project lays the foundation for renewed passenger rail service in Mobile by designing a new passenger rail station that links several waterfront attractions, including the Alabama Cruise Terminal, GulfQuest National Maritime Museum, and the Mobile Convention Center.”
Coastal Alabama Partnership CEO Wiley Blankenship said the money was a very significant step in the process toward bringing back passenger rail service.
“I think it’s something that if we didn’t have it, I don’t think it’d be moving,” Blankenship said. “It puts us in a position to get something built and completed in anticipation of bringing Gulf Coast rail back.”
The location of a proposed new station has not yet been determined. It could be an addition to existing infrastructure, or its own stand-alone structure, city spokesman George Talbot said.
Various station locations could prove more challenging than others, Blankenship said. For instance, a station platform or structure near Cooper Riverside Park downtown could interfere with Alabama Port Authority activities for intermodal rail service and cause problems, he said.
“It seems like a logical location, but we have to remember what kind of impact it’s going to have,” he said. “There is only so much property. We have to consider if that is the best use of the property.”
Putting a station at the GM&O building could also be a possibility, Blankenship said, although there would still be an impact on the port. He added there could be a compromise on both locations, if need be.
“We put a man on the moon, we can probably figure it out,” he said.