Despite a lack of enthusiasm from state leaders in Montgomery, advocates pushing Amtrak’s visions of a passenger rail service running from Mobile to New Orleans are hoping that tune might change if local officials can show they are willing to put “some skin in the game.”
Stephen McNair, a member of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), addressed Mobile County Commissioners this week about the possibility of the county contributing to Alabama’s portion the multimillion-dollar project that aims to re-establish passenger rail routes through Mississippi and Louisiana that haven’t been used since they sustained significant damage during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
With members in multiple states, the SRC has been a primary advocate and organizer for the effort.
“This train will not be the old Sunset Limited. This is going to be a commuter train — a seven-days-a-week, twice-a-day passenger rail service,” McNair said. “We’re still working on things like ticket price and timetables, but in the meantime, we have to find the funding, and the state is interested in seeing what kind of local commitments we can secure before it earmarks any funds toward the project.”
That might be a slight understatement given the somewhat chilly reception the idea has gotten from state leaders like Gov. Kay Ivey. Despite that, the vision of Amtrak returning service to the Gulf Coast has continued to gain support in other states and among federal transportation officials. So far, tens of millions of dollars have been earmarked for the idea, but Alabama has yet to make a commitment.
The SRC has already secured a $33 million federal grant from the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program, and McNair said Louisiana and Mississippi have also dedicated $10 million and $19 million to the project, respectively. Alabama has only been asked to put up about $5.3 million to cover infrastructure costs and some initial operating expenses.
According to McNair, that figure would cover $2.2 million worth of infrastructure upgrades to the old Amtrak stop downtown as well as another $3 million to cover operational costs for three years.
“What we’re going to be asking the city and state for will be related to the operational costs, but we believe the county would be more inclined to support a one-off payment for infrastructure costs,” McNair added. “[Those costs] can be paid over a four year period.”
So far, the SRC hasn’t approached the county or city with a specific dollar figure request, but McNair said the project would require “committed partners” and he wanted to “start that conversation.” The Mobile City Council delayed passing a resolution backing the project and encouraged Ivy to fund it earlier this year, though it did eventually passed one with far less zeal about the city’s support for the project.
Among the county commissioners, there seemed to be some support for the idea, but also concerns about the logistics of bringing the project to fruition and whether it would see enough use to make it financially viable. McNair said studies have projected that a passenger rail line could be “self-sustaining by its fourth year,” and in a worst-case scenario, would only cost about $600,000 to operate annually.
Commissioners Merceria Ludgood and Connie Hudson asked McNair who the target market would be for a passenger train, and also questioned how the SRC would market a rail service to New Orleans that is currently projected to take an hour longer than driving there by car does now.
“We anticipate not only tourists coming and going to and from New Orleans and the casinos in Mississippi, but also day-to-day business travelers. We’re hoping to keep the ticket prices low enough to keep everyone at the table,” he said. “The trip would take longer than driving, but that’s time you get back to talk on the phone, use your computer because you’re not on the road.”
Money aside, some officials including Ivey have been worried the project would negatively impact commercial freight, specifically coal moving through the Port of Mobile. That has especially been a concern as the state prepares to put up more $150 million to help expand the Mobile Ship Channel.
Previously, Alabama State Port Authority President Jimmy Lyons has objected to the idea because the same lines that would be used for passenger rails are currently used for commercial freight service. Ivey echoed those concerns last year, when she declined to pledge $5.3 million on Alabama’s behalf.
McNair said the SRC has been in conversations with the port and other stakeholders about how the project could move forward without impacting them, and noted that part of Alabama’s contribution to the project would create a second line so “the Amtrak doesn’t stay on the main line longer than it has to.”
“We want to make sure we have the support of everyone involved,” McNair said. “The point of the Southern Rail Commission is to benefit not just passenger rail, but all rail services.”
He also mentioned the SRC is still in the process of conducting a joint study with the Mobile Airport Authority about what it would take to build a new train station at the old Brookley airfield. That could alleviate some of the concerns about the port, but would likely take more time and money to build.
McNair said he expected the results of that study to be available within the next three to six months and said the SRC is hoping to have a specific funding request to the county by then as well. Commission President Jerry Carl said that information would be needed before the county makes any decision.
“I’d like to see some final numbers, but the idea of it is pretty neat. I’ve got friends that used the old Amtrak and they’d go over to New Oleans for the day, shop and come back,” Carl told Lagniappe. “A regional tie, I think, is what they’re trying to focus on, and I find that very thought-provoking.”
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