Federal grant secured, Gulf Coast looks to clear other hurdles to Amtrak service

Published: Sep. 27, 2023 at 6:14 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A pair of long-expected federal grants awarded this week are going to mean millions of dollars for railroad upgrades on the Gulf Coast, but obstacles remain to resuming Amtrak service.

The money from the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement program, or CRISI, will go to two major Gulf Coast projects:

  • Up to $23.2 million for the Florida Gulf & Atlantic Railroad. It will make improvements along a 100-mile stretch of track on a line used by freight trains between Pensacola and just west of Jacksonville.
  • Up to $178.4 million for restoration of passenger train service between Mobile and New Orleans. It would be the first time Amtrak has operated between those cities since suspending service following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“We know that there are so many places in the U.S., certainly places around the Gulf Coast, where we need to improve the conditions of our railroads,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told FOX10 News. “That benefits supply chains. It benefits anybody who counts on the goods that move along those rails, and it can benefit passengers, as well.”

The Southern Rail Commission, a congressionally created organization that is sponsoring the Amtrak service, will use its CRISI grant to build new track, upgrade existing lines and make station improvements. Knox Ross, the commission’s chairman, said the money will allow it to fulfill the commitments it made as part of a deal with the freight railroads that own and use the tracks.

“It’s gonna pay for some pretty significant track improvements in Alabama, as well – as well as in Louisiana,” he said.

The grant will pay for a spur from the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley to the site of the Mobile train stop next to the Arthur Outlaw Mobile Convention Center. The project involves the construction of bridges over Washington Avenue and a drainage creek, as well as crossovers and switches.

One big expense the grant will not cover is upgrading the former train platform next to the Convention Center and a layover track about 3,000 feet west of the existing line. The platform, which Amtrak used before Katrina, needs to be made compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The new track will allow passengers to get on and off the train without blocking freight trains. It also is where the Amtrack trains will be parked overnight.

Ross said Amtrak will pay those costs, but it is contingent on the city of Mobile finalizing a lease for part of the parking lot that it will take up. Those negotiations have been going on for months.

“I think wisely, they’re trying to determine exactly what the future is of that site,” Ross said. “‘Cause I mean, you got the cruise ship terminal; you got other things going on there.”

David Clark, Mobile’s top tourism official and a member of the Southern Rail Commission, said he is not concerned the negotiations will jeopardize the overall project. He said finalizing the grant helps.

“It keeps the train, you know, going down the track,” he said. “All this is going to be resolved.”

Passenger rail has its detractors, including on the Mobile City Council, where Councilman Joel Daves has questioned the wisdom of taxpayer subsidies. Buttigieg said rail service will benefit those who ride trains – and those who don’t.

“We want people to have access to many different options,” he said. “And what we’ve seen is economies tend to do the best when you have that variety that meets people where they are.”

Buttigieg said the benefits extend beyond train passengers.

“I would add, even if you don’t use trains or transit and you’re on the road, you benefit from the people who do because it means less congestion,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to have an all-of-the-above strategy. And these investments will pay major economic dividends over time.”

So far, costs to Mobile taxpayers have been minimal. The states of Mississippi and Louisiana paid the local match for the CRISI grant. But at some point, the city will have to start spending money to support train service. The city will have to pay some of the cost if it wants to build a station, like the ones that exist in the four Mississippi cities along the route.

The commission has a separate six-year federal grant to pay Amtrak to operate the service. But local governments will have to shoulder a growing share of that cost as time progresses, and unlike Mississippi and Louisiana, where state governments have made commitments, Alabama’s governor has declined to participate. That means Mobile would have to pay Alabama’s share of any subsidy.