Amtrak’s decision to move ahead with the return of Gulf Coast passenger rail service despite an incomplete modeling study has not only divided city leaders, but leaves Mobile’s mayoral candidates on opposite sides of the tracks.
A one-time fierce advocate for the return of passenger rail service in the form of a daily round-trip from Mobile to New Orleans, incumbent Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s enthusiasm for the project has waned a bit. In a statement, Stimpson called for “more data” to ensure passenger rail and the freight lines could successfully co-exist.
“Whether it’s passenger rail, revitalizing and relocating our airport, or road, bike and walking infrastructure, I am supportive of increased travel and tourism opportunities for Mobilians and those visiting our city,” he said in the statement. “I am committed to working with both parties to ensure that Amtrak and freight rail can both be successful in a way that serves our city and our citizens.”
Amtrak recently announced its intention to forego a modeling study in partnership with Norfolk Southern and CSX to determine infrastructure needs and costs related to bringing passenger rail service back to the Gulf Coast. Amtrak officials complained the study, initially expected to take six or seven months, was dragging on close to a year with no end in sight.
Instead of the modeling study, Amtrak intends to use a feasibility study it produced to determine the needs and cost estimates. Amtrak, through the Southern Rail Commission, is poised to use $66 million in grant funds to pay for those track improvements.
In addition to abandoning the study, Amtrak plans to go before the Surface Transportation Board to allow it to use the tracks owned by the two freight rail companies. Amtrak has asked for an expedited ruling to allow for service to begin as early as January 2022.
The issue of passenger rail’s return has split the Mobile City Council. At a recent meeting Councilman Fred Richardson, who is also a 2021 mayoral candidate, asked his colleagues to join him in issuing a statement in support of Amtrak. He was the only member to sign onto the statement.
In the statement, Richardson said the return of passenger rail would improve the quality of life for Mobilians by allowing them to travel to New Orleans whether they “owned a vehicle or not.”
Richardson also said in the statement the train would improve the city’s tourism offerings.
“This is a game-changer for our city and our citizens,” he said in the statement. “The return of passenger rail to our city is key in our continuing efforts to make Mobile a major tourist destination. This will provide tourists a new way to reach our city — to spend a night or two before boarding a cruise, enjoy a more relaxed and family-friendly Mardi Gras or attend the world-famous MoonPie Drop. In doing so, it will also help hundreds of our local businesses that rely on the tourism industry and our many citizens employed by them.”
The council has previously approved an expenditure of $3 million over three years to help defray the cost of operation of the train. The $3 million was the state’s match, but Gov. Kay Ivey has refused previously to foot the bill.
The $3 million from the city was contingent upon Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern finishing the modeling study. Since it doesn’t appear the study will be completed, it’s unclear if the city will still provide the operating funds. The council would need five of its seven members to approve a new appropriation without the contingency, or Amtrak could get the funding from another source, given the billions of dollars coming to it from the American Rescue Plan.
Karlos Finley, another mayoral candidate, is also in favor of the return of passenger rail to Mobile. Finley said the return of passenger rail to Mobile will bring connectivity to the city.
“Let’s start with connectivity, not just to the Gulf Coast, but to west and east,” he said. “As a 21st-century port city it’s important we have the ability to be able to move people all over the country with this rail service.”
Echoing some of what Richardson said in his statement, Finley believes the train could help optimize tourism in the city, especially for visitors of the future Clotilda exhibit.
“The Clotilda is an international story and people will come from all over the world to see what we’ve developed here,” he said. “The easier it is to get here by train, the more advantageous it is.”
The rail service could also help the city better develop its waterfront. Usually hailed as a working port, the city has miles of downtown waterfront that is almost unusable, aside from a portion set aside at Cooper Riverside Park. Finley said he would like to change that as mayor.
Among his ideas would be a parkway of sorts that would exit off of Interstate 165 and head to the waterfront. Another plan would be to facilitate waterfront dining through restaurants.
Stimpson has had similar ideas and the city even looked for a restaurant partner to develop the cafe at the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum into a full fledged restaurant with outdoor seating, but nothing has yet come to fruition.
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