Amtrak’s proposed Mobile-New Orleans line is ‘a bad idea’ for Alabama, officials say

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A freight train passes through Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

A freight train passes through Bay St. Louis, Mississippi on a track federal officials are considering adding an Amtrak passenger line to as part of a new route from Mobile to New Orleans.

Stephan Bisaha, Gulf States Newsroom

A plan to connect cities across the Gulf Coast with a new Amtrak line has instead divided states as they made their cases for and against the route before federal officials Tuesday.

Mississippi wants to move full steam ahead with plans to restore a passenger rail in the region. Kyle Lewis, a Bay St. Louis city councilman who spoke at the open meeting, said the project provides a unique opportunity to spread tourists and their dollars across the coast.

Alabama, however, worries that the line will disrupt the freight rail its economy relies on, with Greg Canfield, secretary for the Alabama Department of Commerce, calling the plan in its current state “concerning.”

Joel Daves, a city councilman in Mobile, Alabama, also questioned who the train would be for, arguing a faster and cheaper option for those looking to get across the Gulf Coast would be to simply take a car. Amtrak has yet to say how much a ticket for the line would cost.

“This is a bad idea,” Daves said. “The economic infirmities pale in comparison to the threat to the economy of the city of Mobile.”

In the coming months, the Surface Transportation Board will rule whether Amtrak can force the private railroads along the coast to run passenger trains. The railroads argue Amtrak hasn’t done its due diligence to avoid hurting the freight train industry. Amtrak has accused the railroads of stonewalling.

The decision the board makes will almost certainly play a pivotal role in Amtrak’s future — setting a precedent that will either green light its expansion plans across the country or derail them.

Why Alabama wants to halt plans

Alabama officials didn’t share Mississippi’s enthusiasm for the proposal. Instead, they worry the new line will cause big problems for one of their primary economic drivers — the Port of Mobile.

The port estimates it supports about 161,000 jobs and generates nearly $27 billion each year in economic value. An essential part of the port’s success comes from freight trains hauling goods to and from Mobile. Mac McCutcheon, Alabama Speaker of the House, said Amtrak running passenger trains on those same tracks will delay the freight.

“This will slow down service, create bottlenecks and undermine the foundation that has been so important not to just our state but private companies that have selected Alabama as their base of operation,” McCutcheon said.

While proponents of the Amtrak plan said passenger and freight trains co-existed on that line 16 years ago, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson pointed out that the port has grown significantly since then. Stimpson said the port opened a container terminal in 2008 and has posted double-digit growth every year since, outside of the Great Recession.

Current supply chain problems have also provided a recent boost to the port’s traffic.

Issues of who will pay to upgrade the infrastructure needed for the extra trains were also raised by Alabama officials. The state said more time should be taken to study the costs, but Amtrak and its proponents said the private railroads have delayed previous studies by sharing little of the needed data.

CSX, one of the private railroads pushing against Amtrak, has provided multiple estimates over the years for the infrastructure cost — from $405 million to at one point $2 billion. Amtrak will cover the service cost for three years with the potential of federal funding after that, but Alabama worries it will get stuck with the bill.

Healing long-lasting wounds in Mississippi

Amtrak ran a passenger line across the Gulf Coast previously before damage from Hurricane Katrina brought it to a halt. Now, the agency wants round trips between Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans twice a day — hitting stops along the way in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula.

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker told the Surface Transportation Board Tuesday returning Amtrak to the Gulf Coast would heal some of the longest-lasting wounds from Katrina.

“This is not an abstract policy question,” Wicker said. “It’s about continuing and completing the recovery some 16 years later.”

The idea of the train coming back has already led to about $36 million in investment in Pascagoula, according to city officials. The neighborhood around Bay St. Louis’ train depot has also seen a bounce back.

“The amount of tourism that this facility and passenger rail will bring to our area will be extraordinarily beneficial,” Michael Silverman, Pascagoula’s city manager, said.

An economic impact study from the University of Southern Mississippi said the line could create hundreds of millions of tourism dollars for the Magnolia State, and the Rail Passenger Association said an Amtrak line could generate between $120 million and $1 billion for the Gulf South.

Greater New Orleans Inc., which represents multiple chambers of commerce in the area, supports the plan, saying it could both provide an economic boost and a potential additional evacuation route in cases of disaster.

How the decision affects other states

Speakers from across the country spoke up in favor of the Amtrak plan. Proponents from Ohio and Pennsylvania said it’s not just two daily trains between New Orleans and Mobile at stake, but the fate of Amtrak’s ambitions.

“A bad decision, in this case, could make it impossible to bring passenger rail to Madison,” Satya Rhodes-Conway, mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, said.

Last year, Amtrak released a map dreaming up about 30 new routes. The federal infrastructure plan passed last year sets aside $66 billion for Amtrak, providing the funding to make at least some of those plans possible.

But many of those routes will run into the same problems delaying the Gulf Coast line.

A decision along the Gulf Coast in favor of Amtrak will severely limit private rail companies’ ability to keep their tracks freight-only. But if the Surface Transportation Board decides against Amtrak, passenger train fans warn the railroads will be able to use the same tactics to halt new routes elsewhere.

“This would stop any American rail expansion in its tracks,” said Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.

 

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