The Southern Rail Commission (SRC) has successfully navigated another roadblock, making the return of Amtrak to the Gulf Coast more likely than ever. But one last hurdle remains for Mobile and it comes at a time of uncertainty.
With local and state budgets in flux due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a $5.4 million Federal Railroad Administration grant to the SRC means the commission will need to pressure the state of Alabama even more to make needed safety improvements that would ensure a project to bring twice-daily train service between Mobile and New Orleans moves forward.
“There’s still a question of money, infrastructure-wise, in Alabama,” SRC Chairman Wiley Blankenship said. “With the economy in flux and tax revenue down, it’s going to have an impact.”
The state government has already balked at supporting the project once, which forced the Mobile City Council to fund the current grant’s match of a maximum of $3 million over three years. With estimates that the state could lose at least $1 billion due to the virus outbreak, Blankenship understands there might be hesitation on the part of the state and county governments.
“It’s going to have an impact on everything,” he said. “There will be priorities all over the state.”
While Blankenship said he’s “worried” from a local perspective because of the uncertainty in the economy, he believes rail is a “viable way to travel.” At roughly $3 million, Blankenship said, the safety improvements are not a “huge lift.”
“I think it’ll be an integral part of getting the economy going,” he said. “It’s clear in Mobile and along the Gulf Coast that people want this.”
If local and state governments can’t make it work, Blankenship said the SRC would work to find other sources of funding.
“We’re not going to stop as the SRC,” he said. “We’re going to be turning over rocks to find funding.”
Another issue impacting the return of passenger rail is a station in Mobile. Whether the city and SRC continue with a plan to build a train terminal at the Brookley Aeroplex, or if it just becomes a simple platform, Blankenship said a station is needed.
“A station has to be done,” he said. “Put it down on the list.”
Local SRC member Stephen McNair struck a more optimistic tone when asked about the grant. First, McNair thanked the city for the match.
“The Southern Rail Commission is thrilled that a large part of the operating costs has been allocated,” he said. “It would not have been a successful federal grant application without the city’s commitment to the return of passenger rail.”
McNair said the SRC would begin planning for the infrastructure improvements and was still on track to open the new line in 2022.
“This is a very positive step forward,” McNair said. “We remained committed to reinstating passenger rail along the coast.”
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