Photo | Dale Liesch
An Amtrak inspection train arrived in Mobile from New Orleans in 2016, signaling an interest to bring passenger rail back to the Port City.
The signing of the federal FY2018 omnibus spending bill could finally bring passenger rail service back to Mobile.
Signed by President Donald J. Trump in March, the bill would provide millions in possible funding for rail service, including special grant funds set aside for service that was canceled. The bill includes $592.5 million in funding for Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements, or CRIS, including $35.5 million set aside to restore lost passenger rail service such as the Gulf Coast route, according to a statement from the Southern Rail Commission.
“The money is there,” SRC Secretary and Treasurer Greg White, from Alabama, said. “It is up to us to make an application.”
The commission would apply for the grants but needs funding commitments, in the form of matches, in order to get federal attention, White said.
“All the states are engaged with us,” White said.
The immediate interest of the SRC is to re-establish an Amtrak route from New Orleans to Mobile and build from there, White said. It helps, he said, that Mobile has been awarded a grant for station construction.
“Getting to Mobile is relatively simple,” he said. “There’s strong interest to move to a twice-daily service from Mobile to New Orleans.”
The $125,000 grant for the city allows for design of a station and master plan. 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. With a $125,000 city match and a $25,000 in-kind match, the total budget for the project is $275,000.
From Mobile, there is interest as well in connecting to Atmore and having a train terminate there. However, daily port traffic would make it slightly more complicated.
“There is strong support from Atmore leadership,” White said. “The complication of getting it to Atmore would be congestion of the port yard. It would have to go through there.”
The spending appropriation that averted a government shutdown represents a $68 million spending increase on passenger rail over fiscal year 2017. While the tracks between New Orleans and Mobile already have positive train control, or PTC, the funding includes $250 million for PTC. PTC is designed to automatically stop trains before certain kinds of accidents occur. Amtrak was funded to the tune of $1.2 billion, which represents a slight increase over FY2017.
Wiley Blankenship, a local member of the SRC, said the money in the spending plan “strengthens the case” for passenger rail in Mobile.
“This is a real, tangible indication that things are moving in the right direction,” he said. “A lot of hurdles have to be cleared yet.”
For one, Blankenship said the SRC must do a better job communicating with the general public. To that end, Blankenship said he’s organizing a breakfast meeting Thursday, April 12, to brief a regional delegation on passenger rail service.
Previously, the SRC championed a report by a Federal Railroad Administration working group that showed a total cost to revive service from New Orleans to Orlando would cost $5.48 million and adding a route from New Orleans to Mobile would cost $4 million.