A new federal grant award could mean the return of passenger rail service in Mobile, a statement from Transportation For America (TFA) confirmed last week.
The $33 million Federal Railroad Administration grant secured by the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) would help provide funding needed for improvements to the rail line to allow for a return of Amtrak service from Mobile to New Orleans, TFA announced. The grant will be paired with matching funds already committed from Mississippi, Louisiana and Mobile.
Wiley Blankenship, a local SRC member, said he’s excited about passenger rail service returning to the Gulf Coast for the first time since Hurricane Katrina damaged segments of the track in 2005. Rail service could return in two years, he said.
“Amtrak has given a rough timeline of what they wanted to do,” he said. “It could happen a lot faster.”
Blankenship said safety improvements would still have to be made before a passenger train could use the current rails along the route. While CSX has already made a number of these improvements, Blankenship said, upgrades to crossings would also need to be made. For example, crossings that currently only have flashing lights would need to be upgraded to include electronic arms.
While Mobile has committed $125,000 to design a new train station, it’s unclear if the state of Alabama will chip in money of its own for the project. In a statement, Gov. Kay Ivey said she wanted to see what the “long-term impacts … to the port” would be before committing state resources to the project.
“Plus, I want to make certain we know what the long-term financial commitments will be long after this grant has been spent,” the statement reads. “My administration will be working closely with the city, county, port authority and other entities to make certain that this is truly a win for the people of Alabama. We’ll be in a better position to evaluate this after further conversations with these different entities.”
A lack of commitment from the state wouldn’t completely doom the project, Blankenship said, but could lead to slower service when a train reaches the state due to rail safety issues. However, on her larger point, Blankenship seemed to agree with Ivey on issues involving the port and how this project could impact it. That’s one reason the project would terminate in Mobile, rather than continue on to Jacksonville, Florida.
“Getting through the port is a challenge,” he said. “There are logistical and infrastructure issues in going through the port. It’s not doable at this time.”
Not traveling the same route as the old Sunshine Limited line did, going from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida, means better on-time travel for passengers, Blankenship said. While a trip to New Orleans on the train would take longer than it would to drive, Blankenship said it would be beneficial to business travelers, who could get work done and wouldn’t have to worry about traffic or parking.
The city received a grant from the SRC for station design and a master plan. In its application for the grant, Mobile asked for $125,000 from the SRC with a $125,000 “cash” match and a $25,000 “in-kind” match. The total budget for the master plan and design would be $275,000.
In the application, project manager Brad Christensen wrote the project would help enhance the city’s downtown area.
“The city will partner with a professional consulting firm to develop a station area master plan and associated architectural designs for a station platform, building, parking area and pedestrian access bridge,” Christensen wrote. “Mobile is geographically and economically positioned to add critical passenger rail infrastructure capacity to the federally designated Gulf Coast high-speed rail corridor. This project would allow the city to take the first steps toward station reconstruction to ready the city for the reintroduction of intercity passenger rail along the Gulf Coast.”
This new passenger rail will serve the Coastal South in a more robust way than the old service ever did, stopping four times a day in New Orleans, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula with business-friendly, daytime service. It will link visitors, employees and state residents to Gulf casinos, military bases, historic sites, tourist attractions and colleges. These capital investments will not only benefit passenger traffic, but freight as well, and the SRC is committed to supporting port access and circulation.
According to the Trent Lott National Center for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern Mississippi, the passenger rail will generate $282.58 million annually in the state of Mississippi, and will create 45 new full-time, permanent, high-wage train operating jobs in Louisiana. The impacts on tourism could be even more dramatic, as the study found just a 5-percent increase in visitors to Harrison County — home of most of Mississippi’s casinos — could generate $92 million more in annual spending and income.
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