It appears that Amtrak passenger rail service will be returning to the Gulf Coast. A $33 million grant from the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) was announced on Friday, which will cover half of the cost for major infrastructure improvements along a route between Mobile and New Orleans, plus four stops in Mississippi. Louisiana, Mississippi and Amtrak will chip in most of the remaining money, and the trains are expected to be running in 24 months.
One year ago, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey vetoed a great opportunity to restore passenger rail service to Mobile. Amtrak had served the city, as well as Pensacola, on the Sunset Limited train to Los Angeles for years. But when Hurricane Katrina hit, a key link between New Orleans and Mobile was wiped out and train service indefinitely suspended. The tracks were repaired years ago, but still no train.
The new service, scheduled to begin in 2021, will be a regional train and nothing like the transcontinental Sunset Limited that previously served Mobile. There will be four trains each day between Mobile and New Orleans, and the frequency of the schedules should make the train a fairly convenient option.
Alabama has again not contributed to this latest effort, as Governor Ivey and the Port Authority in Mobile still do not appear to be on board with the new service. Last year's veto represented a spend of a little more than $5 million. This year, with matching dollars from the FRA, the state is being asked to pony up just $2.7 million in support of the start-up. A statement from the governor sounds a lot like due diligence. Ivey tells al.com that she wants to "see what the long-term implications would be – both positive and negative – to the Port which has been the focus of a lot of efforts – and money – in recent months and years." The mention of our Port is telling. Jimmy Lyons, the CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority, was opposed to the passenger rail project a year ago, claiming passenger trains cause "major disruptions" to Port activity. The Port has so far declined comment on the grant and its implications for operations at the State Docks.
The City of Mobile has long been supportive and has already agreed to spend $125,000 to design a new rail station. The Mobile Airport Authority can see the possibilities for train service, as well. Last year, Executive Director Chris Curry reminded al.com that those tracks run through Brookley Field. With a new passenger terminal now open at the Downtown Airport, trains could provide easy transportation to the new airport from points further afield -- using the airport either as the main station or an airport substation. Curry's idea is exactly how we should be thinking about transportation anyway, making various types of transport link up easily for the benefit of all users.
For too many jaded residents of Alabama's Gulf Coast, opposition from the governor's office seems like more of the same in our forgotten corner of the state. There are just too many examples of our region being ignored, while other parts of the state garner attention. It's been years since a project to fix a few miles of Bloody 98 was proposed, and still nothing. But North Alabama got themselves a brand new interstate between Birmingham and Memphis during that time. There is a a massive interstate rebuild happening in Downtown Birmingham, to be paid for by taxpayers statewide. But the I-10 bridge will be financed by tolls on its local users. Birmingham still has train service, but Alabama can't be bothered to spend a few million to help restore service to Mobile.
Amtrak service will likely be restored anyway, no matter what the governor thinks. Wiley Blankenship is a member of the Southern Rail Commission and President/CEO of the Alabama Coastal Partnership. He expressed to al.com some optimism that the trains would run again regardless. But without Alabama's portion of track upgrades, the train would have to run at a much slower speed in Alabama than it would in Mississippi and Louisiana. That said, Blankenship is also optimistic that the governor can be persuaded to change her mind and commit to the $2.7 million.
Time will tell.
Residents of the Mobile area understand the Port for the economic engine it is, and we're rightly proud of how they help both our city's and state's economies. But the Port is not a private business, and thus does not exist solely for its own ends. The Port Authority exists to improve the state's economy, specifically through Port activities; but looking only at its own operations does taxpayers and local residents a disservice. Former Southern Rail Commission member Jerry Gehman tells NBC 15 News that for every dollar the state spends on Amtrak, studies show it will get $25 back. The restoration of Amtrak service will represent a boost to local tourism, a boost to passenger services at Mobile Downtown Airport (Brookley), and will be an overall economic good. If a few Amtrak trains a day would cause even a small disruption, then the Port should take a leadership role in crafting a solution that serves the Port and the city it calls home.
My wife and I visit New Orleans quite a bit. We're Saints and Pelicans fans, and we love the Big Easy for its own sake. We wouldn't take the train over to New Orleans every time we visit, maybe not even most times. But if the schedules are good, we'd certainly enjoy getting out of the car, avoiding a stressful drive on an overcrowded I-10 across Mississippi, and instead sit back and enjoy the comfort and convenience of traveling by train.
Photo: Amtrak Train at New London Station [Photo Credit: Pi.1415926535 via Wikimedia Commons]