The return of passenger rail service in Mobile is still on track, after the Mobile City Council voted to provide $3 million over three years to help fund operation of a train.
Councilman Joel Daves was the only dissenting vote on an amended letter of intent to support the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) in its efforts to apply for a federal grant to operate twice-daily, round-trip service between Mobile and New Orleans, with stops in several Mississippi cities along the way. Councilors voted unanimously to incorporate most of the language Mayor Sandy Stimpson had suggested be added to it.
SRC member Stephen McNair said the $3 million is capped and will not be exceeded, alleviating fears the service could become a financial burden to the city.
“This cannot become another GulfQuest,” McNair said, alluding to a doomed project beset early on by costly delays. “It’s not possible with the way this grant is written.”
The city funding will only cover a local match for a grant to operate the service. The Mobile County Commission or the state would be responsible for any needed infrastructure, McNair told councilors. SRC has had conversations with commissioners and Gov. Kay Ivey’s office as it relates to infrastructure costs, he said.
“The governor is supportive of SRC and is open about her interest in this,” McNair said. “The door is open as it relates to infrastructure.”
Councilors remaining on the fence following previous debate on the subject seemed to be swayed, in part, by Stimpson’s support of the measure. In a letter to Council President Levon Manzie, Stimpson wrote he was in favor of moving forward, given a number of contingencies related to concerns from port officials.
“Our goal is to deliver this amenity to our citizens while protecting the city’s financial interests and ensuring that this new service does not impede the tremendous job growth we are experiencing through growth at the port of Mobile,” he wrote.
The city’s support, Stimpson wrote, should be contingent upon the completion of a freight impact study, currently being conducted by Norfolk Southern, CSX and Amtrak. Stimpson also wrote the city must not be committed to any future improvements to rail lines and the city’s contributions start in 2022 and end in 2024.
Councilwoman Gina Gregory and Councilman John Williams credited Stimpson’s letter with helping to move them to an affirmative vote.
Before the final vote, Daves again addressed his concerns publicly. In addition to concerns over the impact to port operations, Daves said the service is expected to lose close to $7 million per year, even if the roughly $700,000 annual projected passenger revenue is considered. It’s a cost that would be split evenly among Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The state, he said, would be on the hook for about $2.3 million per year, which would put the subsidy at about 10 to one.
“For every $1 spent by a passenger, it would be $10 for taxpayers, by Amtrak’s own numbers,” he said. “With that level of subsidy, it might as well be free.”
Daves also attacked the idea a four-hour ride to New Orleans, with possible ticket prices as high as $35, represented a new form of public transportation for the Port City.
“This isn’t a viable form of alternative transportation,” Daves said. “It’s a joy ride for the affluent.”
Councilman Levon Manzie said the train service would just be another in a long line of subsidized transportation plans. If financial concerns were a motivating factor in those other instances, drivers would not be able to leave their homes because there would be no roadways.
Councilman Fred Richardson said the interstate highway drivers take to New Orleans was subsidized by taxpayers. Air travel also benefits from federal grants and other spending.
“If you added the cost of air traffic control to an airline ticket, or the cost of TSA … I would imagine many people would not be able to afford to get on a plane,” he said. “To make flying affordable, the federal government has to help pay for it.”
While the boost to local tourism has been mentioned among the benefits for Amtrak service, Councilwoman Bess Rich said she was more concerned with how it will impact Mobile residents. To that end, she called the train service an “amenity” and said she had heard positive feedback about it at a four-to-one ratio from residents of District 6.
“Having this in our city is important and I think it’s an amenity,” she said. “I’m hoping it’s a win-win and a good investment for our city.”
Still, opponents spoke out against the service. Cliff Melton, general manager of the port’s terminal railway, told councilors passenger rail service would have a negative impact on traffic there. Between the port and CSX, workers have to deal with anywhere from 14 to 16 trains per day, all using the same tracks.
“We move about 200 to 500 [train] cars from our yard to the docks per day,” Melton said.
Only about 10 side tracks exist between Mobile and New Orleans and only some of those would be able to accommodate longer CSX trains of 9,000 feet, Melton said. In addition, the area sees eight hours of freight traffic per day, and passenger trains would only add to congestion on the tracks.
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