MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Mayor Sandy Stimpson said Wednesday he expects to “get to yes” on city-funded passenger rail service but added he wants assurances it would not impact freight traffic.
The Mobile City Council on Tuesday postponed a vote on a proposal to put up $3 million over three years to help pay for a twice-daily Amtrak line between Mobile and New Orleans. The mayor told FOX10 News on Wednesday that he believes a delay will give officials enough time to ensure that passenger trains do not interfere with rail freight service that is so important to the Port of Mobile.
“We’re looking for a confirmation, a pathway forward so that we don’t get surprised because really, as steward of the taxpayer dollars, it’s imperative that we do our homework to make sure that we get this piece right,” he said.
City support is the missing component in a bid for a federal grant sought by the Southern Rail Commission to restore passenger service along the Gulf Coast for the first time since 2005. City taxpayer money would be spent beginning in 2023.
Proponents argue an Amtrak line would bring tourists and tax revenue into the Port City. But Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons has raised concerns about the impact on freight trains that would have to share the track with the passenger cars.
Stimpson said an expected study on the impact on freight traffic would “take a lot of the ambiguity” out of the debate. But council members will not have access to that information by the time they have to vote next week.
“I’m 100 percent sure we'll have to make a decision without the benefit of that study. … It’s gonna be based on us getting more comfortable with where we are.”
Stimpson, however, downplayed concerns raised by some opponents that the proposal would lead the city toward an unacceptably high level of taxpayer subsidy of a lightly used rail service. Councilman Joel Daves has argued the projected $18.33 ticket cost would not bring in nearly enough money to break even.
Stimpson said there is “no real way to know” what the long-term cost to the city would be.
“I think it’s probably close enough to take that risk,” he said.
Stimpson added that the benefits are more than simply the increased tax dollars the city would see from a visitor boost. He said passenger service would be a “sales point” for the city.
“Not every city can say that,” he said. “And not every city has Amtrak, and a downtown airport like we hope to have one day.”