The possibility of passenger rail service returning to the Port City could once again be in doubt as the Mobile City Council will have to decide whether to invest another $80,000 to keep a federal grant active.
The item, which would fund half of a study to find alternative locations for a train station, was met with ire from Councilman Joel Daves today, who argued Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) had failed to meet conditions set by members when authorizing the initial grant.
During Wednesday’s council pre-conference meeting, Daves said the SRC had failed to this point to provide alternative funding sources for a station and other needed passenger rail infrastructure. He added Amtrak and two freight rail companies — CSX and Norfolk Southern — had yet to complete a study on the impact passenger rail would have on the larger industry.
“My position is we shouldn’t provide the $80,000,” Daves said. “There’s no reason to provide the funding until those conditions are met.”
In more criticism of the plan to provide passenger rail to Mobile, Daves called the proposed daily route to and from New Orleans “a fun ride for the affluent” and an unnecessary mode of transportation.
“It’s not a viable alternative transportation option,” Daves said. “The short-term railroad from Mobile to New Orleans is an amusement park on wheels.”
Councilman Fred Richardson disagreed, comparing passenger rail service to the cruise industry. He said the city spent money to build a cruise terminal and it should do the same for passenger rail.
“I support rail transportation,” Richardson said. “The $80,000 is a drop in the bucket in terms of what would happen if we opened up passenger rail service.”
Brad Christensen, director of architectural engineering, said the proposed freight rail study is on hold for a few months. He added that the funding is needed to prevent the Federal Railroad Administration from requesting the initial grant money’s return.
SRC Chairman Wiley Blankenship said members of the group are “disappointed” by the continued delays of the freight rail study as it will help determine if passenger rail service is viable financially going forward.
“I’m sure the freight rail companies are as disappointed as Amtrak is,” he said.
As for Daves’ comments about rail being a viable transportation option, even when traveling from Mobile to New Orleans, Blankenship said not every traveler has a vehicle to make the two and a half hour journey. When it comes to longer rides, Blankenship added, trains certainly do not cater only to the rich. On trips aboard Amtrak trains, Blankenship has interviewed families crossing the country by train because they can’t afford an airline ticket.
“I’m kind of surprised and disappointed by [Daves’] comment,” Blankenship said. “I hate to even dignify it with a comment. It’s ridiculous.”
Daves has also balked previously at the proposed cost of the service, once federal subsidies are removed. Again on Wednesday, Daves complained about the roughly $3 million per year it would cost to run the short daily service. He used the information to attack Richardson and others who support passenger rail service, but who also voted against the annexation of 13,000 West Mobile residents.
“We heard a lot about not bringing in new residents until we took care of our own,” Daves said. “I can think of underserved communities that would benefit from millions per year instead of providing a fun ride for the affluent.”
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