Despite a victory at the Mobile City Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 4, the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) has a long way to go before it can fully restore Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast.
The restoration of passenger rail service between Mobile and cities westward to New Orleans was buoyed by the council’s 6-1 vote to help SRC apply for a federal grant to operate the train, with $3 million in local matching funds over three years. The grant would allow Amtrak to operate twice-daily, round-trip service from Mobile to New Orleans.
However, the organization with representatives from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana still needs the state, or county, to chip in at least $2.2 million in infrastructure upgrades before the service can begin, Alabama SRC member Stephen McNair said.
Those infrastructure needs were highlighted as part of an 18-month freight and passenger rail study in a previous attempt to restore service between Mobile and Jacksonville, Florida. The rest of the $6.6 million the project needs could, most likely, be paid for through a U.S. Department of Transportation grant.
The previous study focused on three improvements in Alabama, McNair said, including two new switch stations; one in Theodore and one at Choctaw Point near the McDuffie Coal Terminal.
“The manual switches would need to be converted to automatic switches to improve freight traffic,” he said. “The one at Choctaw Point is east of Brookley and will not impact passenger rail. However, we are interested in safety and working with the freight industry.”
The improvements also include a “house track” the train would use when not in service, McNair said.
“That track will be maintained by Amtrak,” he said.
Those numbers do not include a station, which the city has already used SRC grant money to design. However, that design put the station near Cooper Riverside Park and there is interest now in placing a station at the Brookley Aeroplex. Federal grants are available for station design and construction. Some stations, McNair said, are little more than Americans with Disability Act-compliant platforms with a ticket office. Others, however, have heated and cooled waiting rooms.
“The hope is that we get a proper station,” McNair said. “The site and particulars of the station is something we’ll discuss with the Mobile Airport Authority (MAA).”
McNair defined a “proper station” as one that includes restrooms and a climate-controlled waiting room. More information on a station at Brookley will most likely be available after the MAA completes its master plan of the Brookley Aeroplex this summer.
The $2.2 million also does not include any needed improvements found and agreed upon through a new engineering study funded by Amtrak, Norfolk Southern and CSX. That study will produce a report within about the next six months, McNair said. SRC members do not expect it to differ much from the previous 18-month study, he said.
SRC has been in communication with the Mobile County Commission about its infrastructure funding needs in the past, but McNair said the group probably won’t begin lobbying the body again until the latest study is complete. McNair has said the group has also been in contact with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s office and she has seemed more receptive to helping, despite balking initially at using state money to fund operating costs.
Given the six-month study time and time needed to make the improvements, McNair said the area could see it’s first train in 2022.
For weeks, excited Mobilians encouraged Mobile councilors to vote in favor of the train, despite the reality it would operate at about a $7 million loss each year, given Amtrak’s “conservative” estimates. Bill Boswell, a representative of the Government Street Collaborative, told councilors he believed Amtrak service would make an already great city even greater.
Councilors in favor of the service, including Council President Levon Manzie, have argued public transportation is not meant to make a profit.
Officials in one of Mississippi’s largest Gulf Coast cities are excited Mobile voted to join the Amtrak party.
Biloxi Spokeswoman Cecilia Dobbs Walton said while Mobile’s decision to help fund the train’s operation did not impact the Mississippi city’s efforts to become a stop on the trip to New Orleans, Mayor Andrew Gilich and councilors were excited by the news.
“We encouraged people in Mobile to talk to their local leaders and let them know how important it is,” she said.
Biloxi will update its platform at the Coast Transit Authority building in downtown Biloxi, Walton said, which would put passengers within walking distance of hotels, restaurants, casinos and MGM Park.
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