1 month ago

Amtrak bails on impact study in Mobile, doesn’t seem to care about killing Alabama jobs

More than $2 billion has recently been invested to grow and enhance the Port of Mobile, which already contributes over 150,000 jobs and $25.4 billion in economic impact as Alabama’s seaport.

However, that value — and the Port’s status as one of the nation’s fastest growing seaports — is now in jeopardy.

Yellowhammer News began reporting in fall 2019 that the Gulf Coast Passenger Rail project was a potential detriment to the Port of Mobile; the proposal would have two Amtrak passenger trains daily utilize CSX’s existing mainline from the west into downtown Mobile then back west (ultimately traveling to New Orleans).

The Alabama State Port Authority utilizes that line, and it also supports crossings for both the Port Authority’s railroad (Terminal Railway) and five other railroads entering the Port’s main dock terminals, the container intermodal rail terminal and the soon-to-be-constructed finished automobile terminal.

Under federal law, all of that important freight traffic would have to yield to Amtrak’s passenger service. This is why CSX, the Port Authority and the diverse industries that rely on the Port for transporting goods have been asking for an impact study to be completed that would assess infrastructure needs to accommodate passenger rail and any impact on existing freight rail service.

CSX, Norfolk Southern (which owns tracks elsewhere on the proposed route) and Amtrak ultimately agreed on the parameters of the study, which got underway in spring 2020.

Unfortunately, according to two letters obtained by Yellowhammer News, Amtrak in recent weeks decided to end the study before its completion while also announcing the rail service from Mobile to New Orleans would begin next year.

In a letter to Southern Rail Commission (SRC) Chairman Wiley Blankenship (one of Alabama’s delegates on the SRC), Port Authority CEO John Driscoll asked that the SRC “Alabama delegation stand firm in demanding Amtrak complete [the study].”

Alabama’s other delegates to the SRC are Stephen McNair, David Clark, Toby Bennington, Steven Brom and John Clyde Riggs.

Driscoll advised that the study was within two months of completion before Amtrak decided to cancel it; the Port Authority on February 10 asked Amtrak to resume and complete the study, but has reportedly not received a response.

“Alabama’s SRC Commissioners are keenly aware of the public and private investments at Alabama’s only seaport,” wrote Driscoll. “It is established that many of the state’s manufacturing, agribusiness, and retail/distribution growth is tied directly to Alabama’s seaport and its supporting rail infrastructure. … The economic value of business and industry across the entire state of Alabama, and that of its seaport, far exceeds the identified jobs and economic value tied to Amtrak’s goal of 38,000 annual riders.”

“The Alabama State Port Authority has clearly stated it would not oppose passenger rail, if the [freight rail impact] study and supplemental engineering assessment are completed and the necessary infrastructure is put in place to accommodate both freight/container intermodal and passenger services,” he continued. “We ask the SRC’s Alabama delegation, during the SRC’s March 5, 2021 commission meeting, represent this state’s interest by withholding support of Amtrak’s initiation of service in January 2022, and by asking Amtrak to finish the study.”

Driscoll also attached a letter from the Alabama District Export Council to Governor Kay Ivey. A host of trade associations and companies from various industries around the Yellowhammer State signed onto this letter; this includes the Business Council of Alabama, Alabama Farmers Federation, Manufacture Alabama, Alabama Forestry Assocation, Alabama Mining Association, Alabama Railway Association, Economic Development Association of Alabama and Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.

“The ADEC and the listed business interests ask Alabama’s Congressional delegation, the State of Alabama, and the City and County of Mobile to send a strong message to Amtrak by withholding public subsidy for this proposed project,” Alabama District Export Council Chairman Michael Lee wrote. “We further ask your support in asking Amtrak to live up to its promise of working with the other parties to complete the study work necessary to demonstrate the full impact of passenger rail on Alabama’s seaport and the state’s diversified commercial interests.”

Amtrak’s cancellation of the impact study comes after a proponent of the project downplayed the importance of the Port at a Mobile City Council committee meeting early last year.

Judith Adams, spokesperson for the Alabama State Port Authority, released a statement last Friday lamenting Amtrak’s stance.

That statement in full reads as follows:

The Alabama State Port Authority is deeply disappointed in Amtrak’s decision to bypass the necessary study requirements to initiate new service on the CSX mainline in Alabama. On February 10, 2021, Amtrak informed the Port Authority that the study expired and it would discontinue the Rail Traffic Control (RTC) study citing funding shortfalls and study delays. The Port Authority understood the RTC portion of the study was 2 months from completion. The Port Authority oversees the public terminals at the Port of Mobile, one of the nation’s larger seaports. Our public terminals are served by eight railroads in addition to the CSX. All rail traffic supporting import/export activities at the public terminals must cross the CSX. The Port Authority’s Terminal Railway also travels the single track CSX mainline to serve the container intermodal complex and McDuffie Terminal. With over $1.3 billion invested in public terminals and the federal channel, the cargo and vessel activities of the Port Authority’s terminals generates over 150,000 jobs and $25.4 billion in economic value. It would be interesting to know how passenger rail’s economic impact compares.

It is unfortunate that Amtrak continues to tell the public that the “parties have walked away from the study.” The truth is that Amtrak has walked away from the study. Attached are CSX and Norfolk Southern Letters to ASPA advising they have asked Amtrak to return to and complete the study.

The chair of the Southern Rail Commission, Wiley Blankenship, Mobile, Ala, invited the Port Authority to today’s Southern Rail Commission meeting held via Zoom and chaired by the delegate from Louisiana. Mr. Blankenship could not attend due to a prior engagement, but David Clark and Stephen McNair did attend. The Alabama delegation is supporting its port. Mr. Clark did ask Amtrak to finish the study. He did not get a response. Mr. John Spain, the acting chair of the SRC and delegate from LA, acknowledged Mr. Clark’s remarks noting the SRC’s earliest mission statement was “it has to work for the freights as well as the passenger service.” An invitation was extended to John Driscoll, director and CEO of the Port Authority, so the Port could ask (in public forum) the Commission to support the study and ask Amtrak, who was presenting at the meeting, to return to the study. Mike Lee, chair of the Alabama District Export Council was also in attendance ready to ask this same question. The meeting did not afford for public comment or questions, albeit Zoom platforms allow two way communications. Instead, the attending public and media were told to direct their questions or comments to Amtrak after the meeting.

Clark, president and CEO of Visit Mobile, said during the SRC meeting last Friday, “We commissioners have consistently stressed on record that we support passenger rail service — as long as it does not interfere with commerce coming in and out of the state port.”

“We believe that the restart of this service along the Gulf Coast is predicated on the Port’s and Mr. Driscoll’s questions being answered in a satisfactory manner,” he added. “And again, I’m going to say that we look forward to the return of passenger rail service; it’s just conditional on the completion of the [freight rail impact] study before any action is taken by any party.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 mins ago

‘Transformational’ broadband bill gets House committee hearing, still awaits action — ‘We need this’

MONTGOMERY — More than six weeks after unanimously passing the Alabama Senate, SB 215 finally got a hearing in the House Urban and Rural Development Committee on Thursday morning.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) and carried in the House by Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville), is viewed as a “transformational” piece of legislation aimed at expanding the availability of affordable, high-speed broadband internet service to every Alabamian.

While the bill would benefit from historic levels of funding if the current legislative effort to legalize a lottery and gaming in Alabama succeeds, it has been emphasized by elected officials that SB 215 has paramount standalone importance, as well.

As underlined by multiple proponents in Thursday’s public hearing, SB 215 would create the type of cohesive planning that the state’s broadband expansion efforts currently lack. With funding and incentives coming from different directions at the local, state and federal levels, it is important to finally get one clear game plan of how money will be spent and resources prioritized. The bill would also act as a vehicle to draw down federal funds and would create a new state-entity with bonding authority for broadband expansion.

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Garrett reiterated that Alabama is 47th in the nation in broadband connectivity, even lagging well behind Mississippi, as well as other neighboring states.

He said SB 215 is an “effort to develop a comprehensive, aggressive and robust strategy and process to expand broadband across the state.”

“Doing so will enhance Alabama’s education, health care system and economy,” added Garrett. “The state actually has no connectivity strategy or plan right now. All we really have is the ADECA (grant) program — which works very successfully, it’s a very good program. We like the way it operates. But $20 million a year is not going to solve the problem, which is to get internet access throughout this entire state.”

He explained that the endeavor to expand broadband access to all Alabamians carries a price tag between four and six billion dollars.

“So chipping away $20 million or so a year on a grant program is not going to do it,” Garrett added.

“This is a very serious issue for the state,” he stressed.

Proponents of the bill participating in the hearing included Blake Hardwich, speaking on behalf of the Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition; Jeremy Walker, CEO of the Alabama Association of Realtors; and Sean Strickler, vice president of public affairs for the ‎Alabama Rural Electric Association. Other key industry leaders, such as NFIB Alabama State Director Rosemary Elebash, have also expressed their support for SB 215.

“We’re in full support of SB 215,” emphasized Hardwich. The Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition is comprised of a diverse membership across the business, education, health care and agriculture communities.

“We all believe that SB 215 will benefit the state of Alabama,” she added, speaking to the wide swath the coalition represents. “It is my belief, and our belief, if we continue down the current path that we’re on, Alabama will continue to fall further and further behind. We cannot afford to do that.”

Committee Chairman Randall Shedd (R-Cullman) noted that there is a draft of a substitute version of SB 215 that the committee members have; a final version of that sub is expected to be completed in time for a committee vote next week.

Some potential “tweaks” aside, multiple members of the committee expressed an urgency to bridge the digital divide.

Rep. Debbie Wood (R-Valley) said, “We cannot keep doing business in Alabama without proper internet services.”

She outlined an account of children in her district having to sit in cars parked near a bus with a hotspot during the pandemic to even do school work.

“That’s why we need this,” Wood underscored. “It’s vitally important.”

“We want a plan that’s best for the state, that utilizes all the tools in the toolbox,” Garrett reiterated. “We’re trying to do what’s best to provide internet access throughout the state.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

18 mins ago

Auburn’s Unique Thompson selected 19th overall in WNBA draft

Unique Thompson on Thursday evening became the ninth WNBA Draft pick in Auburn University history when she was selected by the Indiana Fever with the 19th overall selection.

Thompson, who attended high school at Mobile’s Faith Academy, was the seventh player taken in the second round.

“I’m excited, I’m happy,” Thompson commented. “The nerves aren’t there anymore. I’m just ready to go. I’m ready to get to work. (Representing Auburn in the WNBA) means so much to me. Auburn is where I started to build my legacy, this is where my hard work began, so it means everything to me.”

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Thompson became the first Auburn Tiger drafted to the WNBA since DeWanna Bonner and Whitney Boddie were selected in 2009.

“I wasn’t even paying attention at first,” Thompson said of when her name was announced on the ESPN broadcast. “And then I heard everybody start screaming, and I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I kind of expected it (being selected by Indiana), I had a long conversation with them on Zoom the other day and I just got off the phone with Teaira (McCowan), Victoria (Vivians) and a few of my other new teammates. I’m looking forward to getting there and getting started.”

Thompson led the Tigers in 2020-21 with 17.8 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, averaging a double-double for the third straight season. Her 12.8 rebounds per game led the SEC, and her 5.4 offensive rebounds per game led the nation. She was one of two players nationwide to have two games this season with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. For her efforts this season, she was named to the All-SEC Second Team and a WBCA Honorable Mention All-American.

The Theodore native finished her career Auburn’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,156 and all-time leader in double-doubles with 58.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

33 mins ago

Montgomery native, Alabama star Jasmine Walker taken No. 7 overall in WNBA draft

Jasmine Walker on Thursday evening was selected by the Los Angeles Sparks with the seventh overall pick in the 2021 Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) Draft.

Walker becomes the seventh Crimson Tide player to be drafted in the WNBA’s 25-year history and just the first since 2005. She is only the second-ever Bama player to go in the first round, joining Tausha Mills, who went No. 2 overall to Washington in 2000.

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This comes after a season for the record books for Walker, who set the program’s single-game scoring mark with 41 points and working her way into every three-point top 10 list. She earned several accolades along the way, including WBCA Honorable Mention All-America honors and SEC All-First Team recognition; Walker also was a finalist for the Katrina McClain Award, which is presented annually to the best power forward in women’s NCAA basketball.

Walker averaged a near double-double in 2020-21 with 19.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game and was the only player in the SEC to rank in the top five in points and rebounds for the season.

She is a Montgomery native who played her high school ball at Jeff Davis. Walker was named the 2016 Alabama Miss Basketball and the 2016 Gatorade Player of the Year for Alabama.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

48 mins ago

Aniah’s Law heading to statewide referendum in 2022

The Alabama Legislature on Thursday gave final passage to legislation that would create “Aniah’s Law.”

The legislation, sponsored by State Rep. Chip Brown (R-Mobile), would allow prosecutors and judges broader discretion in requesting and denying bail to those accused of committing violent crimes.

HB 131 is a constitutional amendment and will be up for a statewide referendum of the people in November 2022; HB 130, the enabling bill that would implement the provisions of HB 131, now heads to the governor’s desk.

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The Constitution of Alabama currently requires that “all persons shall, before conviction, be bailable by sufficient sureties, except for capital offenses, when the proof is evident or the presumption great; and that excessive bail shall not in any case be required.”

Brown’s legislation would amend the state constitution to allow judges to deny bail to individuals facing violent crime charges who would place the public at grave risk if released.

The proposed amendment is named after the late Aniah Blanchard, the 19-year-old college student who prosecutors allege was slain by Ibraheed Yazeed after he was released on bond for several violent offenses including kidnapping and attempted murder.

Yazeed, who is currently being held on capital murder charges, had been awarded bail despite more than a dozen priors, which included drug and robbery arrests.

“Too many of those who are accused of violent crimes are bonding out of jail and committing even more serious offenses, and it is time for law-abiding Alabamians to start fighting back,” Brown stated. “Denying bail to those accused of violent offenses is a commonsense answer to a dangerous societal problem, and following three years of hard work that was necessary to pass this amendment through the Legislature, I am confident the citizens of Alabama will vote to ratify it.”

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson was a major proponent of Brown’s legislation as it worked its way through the legislative process.

“I’d like to commend Representative Chip Brown and Senator David Sessions for supporting us in the three-year effort to see this legislation passed,” Stimpson said on Thursday. “We thank the Blanchard family as well as the entire Alabama Legislature for recognizing the need for this legislation that directly impacts the safety of Alabama citizens. It is now in the hands of Alabamians to vote in favor of this constitutional amendment on the ballot next year. Once passed, this will help significantly in our efforts to close the revolving door and prevent violent offenders from being released to commit more violent acts like the senseless murder of Aniah Blanchard.”

The late Tuscaloosa police officer Dornell Cousette is another example of a prominent case that could have been prevented if Aniah’s Law was in effect. Cousette was killed in the line of duty in 2018 — allegedly murdered by a suspect who was free on bail for robbery and assault charges at the time.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

14 hours ago

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers: ‘Shameful’ Pelosi blocking Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act — ‘Simply supporting infanticide’

Congressman Mike Rogers (AL-03) on Wednesday released a scathing statement regarding House Democrats blocking consideration of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.

Rogers announced that he has signed onto a discharge petition that would force Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to bring this legislation — H.R. 619 — up for a vote in the House.

“As a father of three children and a Christian, this legislation is so important to me,” stated Rogers, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

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All six Alabama Republicans in the U.S. House are cosponsors of H.R. 619, which was was introduced by Reps. Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Steve Scalise (R-LA) in January. The bill would ensure any baby born that survives an abortion would receive the same standard of medical care as a baby born under normal circumstances.

“I will never understand how any human would not support caring for a tiny, living baby that survives an attempted abortion,” he continued. “Anyone who is okay with not helping these babies is simply supporting infanticide. I will always stand up for the rights of the most innocent among us, and it’s shameful that Nancy Pelosi will not even bring this critical legislation up for a vote.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn