The first train passengers into Mobile arrived at Government Plaza at about 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
The group didn’t arrive by traditional rail, but instead traveled a conga line of sorts, twisting through the building’s atrium. They held signs in support of Amtrak’s return to the Port City and called themselves a “human train.” Bill Boswell, who spoke for the group during the regularly scheduled Mobile City Council meeting, pushed support from the body to approve a $3 million commitment to bring back daily train service between New Orleans and Mobile.
“This is a no-brainer from my perspective,” Boswell said. “I understand there are financial issues and an imbalance of funding to taxpayers … but this will have a positive economic impact for the city.”
The Southern Rail Commission (SRC), which is made up of governor-appointed representatives from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana for the express purpose of re-establishing passenger rail service, has asked the City Council to approve a letter of intent that would pledge a maximum of $3 million over three years to act as the match to a federal grant to fund operation of a twice-daily Amtrak route between Mobile and New Orleans. This commitment would be contingent upon an upcoming study showing any adverse impact to freight rail or the port was manageable, and funding for infrastructure was supplied by Mobile County or the state.
It’s the financial and economic questions surrounding this arrangement that have come up again and again, as both sides have debated the merits of bringing service back.
Despite this, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office asked and was granted a one-week delay to answer two “political” questions. Acting Chief of Staff Paul Wesch would specify what those questions were during a pre-conference meeting.
Putting a finer point on the financial concerns of those opposed to the service, Councilman Joel Daves argued the city would have to deeply subsidize the service for it to be a benefit. Using Amtrak’s own “conservative” numbers, Daves estimated that for every dollar a passenger spent on the service, city taxpayers would pitch in to the tune of $10.
“Many of my constituents are opposed to this because it makes no economic sense for the city,” he said. “The service will lose $7 million per year.”
Council President Levon Manzie, who publicly said he supports the return of passenger rail service, said all modes of public transportation are subsidized by taxpayers, whether it’s roads for vehicles, airports for commercial aircraft, buses or trains.
“The feedback I’ve received from the citizens I represent has been very positive,” Manzie said. “This is something citizens want.”
Councilman Fred Richardson said the $3 million it would take to subsidize passenger rail services pales in comparison to other projects the city has helped fund. For example, he brought up the former ThyssenKrupp project in Calvert, which received $64 million in funding.
“It’s not even in the city of Mobile,” he said. “It’s down Highway 43. It’s nowhere near us.”
Richardson also argued the city subsidized then-candidate Donald Trump when he held an election rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. According to reports at the time, the city spent about $60,000 on Trump’s trip, paying for transportation to and from the stadium, as well as security and other expenses.
“We subsidize what we want to subsidize and we don’t say a word,” he said. “Nobody asked [the council] nothing.”
The pre-conference debate became more heated when Other councilors began to push back at Richardson’s suggestion those opposed to the service favored paying for the rich and not the poor.
“If ‘Mr. Little’ can benefit from it, take the subsidy out …. ,” Richardson said. “That’s exactly what we’re saying.”
Councilwoman Bess Rich audibly said “no,” and shook her head. Councilman John Williams attempted to interrupt Richardson, saying he kept talking for “30 minutes” while others had taken up a lot less time to make their points. Williams eventually left the room and returned after the council’s 10:30 a.m. meeting had been called to order. Councilwoman Gina Gregory and Daves got even more animated.
“I have never impugned anyone and I object to my character being impugned,” Daves said.
Gregory said the state and county’s inaction when it comes to funding is what gives her heartburn on the issue. To that point, SRC member Stephen McNair did confirm the states of Mississippi and Louisiana did fund the service with $18 million and $10 million, respectively. To this point, McNair said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has not pledged any state funds, but conversations are continuing. As for the county, he said, commissioners are awaiting the outcome of the city’s vote.
McNair said a one-week delay would still allow the group to make a grant application before the Feb. 5 deadline. Following the meeting, he presented reporters with numbers that indicated an Amtrak prediction of 38,000 riders would be low.
During a 10-month period in 1996 and 1997, some 34,117 riders took a Gulf Coast Limited train. With the area’s increase in population, McNair argued the numbers now would be much greater than that.
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