The effort to bring passenger rail service back to Mobile through a $3 million subsidy has stalled in a Mobile City Council committee.
Councilman Fred Richardson, a member of the council’s finance committee, moved forward a recommendation to bring a letter of intent conditionally pledging the $3 million over three years to the full council, but it died due to lack of a second.
Neither Councilman Joel Daves, committee chairman, nor Councilman John Williams supported the move to allow the full council to vote. Instead, Williams said he would like to wait to hear from Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration before acting.
“It is my belief that the CEO of our city, or members of his staff need to weigh in heavily on this … ” he said. “I’m looking for some very detailed reasons why we should support it.”
There have been good points made on either side of the issue to this point, Williams said.
“I could easily find myself supporting either side,” he said.
The only member of Stimpson’s administration remaining by the time the meeting ended was Executive Director of Public Works Jim DeLapp. DeLapp did not make a comment to councilors.
However, councilors did hear from members of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), representatives of Amtrak, representatives of freight rail and Port CEO Jimmy Lyons during the meeting.
The SRC is asking the city for a total of $3 million over three years to use as matching funds for a federal grant that will fund a passenger rail line from Mobile to New Orleans for the same length of time.
Joe McHugh, vice president of state-supported services for Amtrak, told councilors the Mobile to New Orleans route is a valuable one for the passenger rail carrier. The line has the potential to bring in passengers from as far north as Montgomery and as far east as Pensacola through SRC-funded bus connections.
Jane Covington, a representative of CSX, said the freight carrier and track owner is not “fundamentally opposed” to passenger rail service across its lines, but would like any funding commitment stalled until a study on the impact to freight service can be concluded. She said signing of an agreement on the study between Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern is just days away and the study itself would be completed six months after the signing date.
“More information is needed,” Covington said. “We want to know what infrastructure improvements need to be done to limit disruptions to both freight and passenger rail.”
John Robert Smith, president of Transportation for America and former mayor of Meridian, Miss., told councilors Congress authorized a study by the Federal Railroad Administration in 2015 showing Mobile to New Orleans was the best route and would have minimal impact on current rail lines.
Lyons told councilors the port rail line crosses CSX track between four and eight times per day while moving cars from its track to its exchange yard. Each time, port employees must call CSX dispatchers and have to wait for as long as an hour in order to cross.
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