1 month ago

Amtrak proponent downplays Port’s importance, calls out Ivey ahead of Mobile City Council vote

MOBILE — The Mobile City Council on Tuesday is set to consider a resolution that could pave the way for taxpayer funds being spent on the controversial Gulf Coast Passenger Rail project.

This will come after the council’s finance committee a week prior heard testimony from various stakeholders about the project, including potential pitfalls.

The project has been criticized as “putting the cart before the horse” by the Alabama Railway Association, the Port of Mobile, CSX and many industries across the state that rely on the port and/or freight rail because a freight rail impact study has not been conducted to determine the effects the project would have on related commerce.

This was again emphasized at last week’s finance committee meeting, with Alabama State Port Authority director and CEO Jimmy Lyons, CSX regional vice president of state government affairs Jane Covington, Alabama Coal Association president Patrick Cagle and Mississippi Export Railroad Company president and CEO Kate Luce advocating that due diligence be done before rushing ahead on a project that could have a negative impact on Mobile’s and Alabama’s economies.

‘Important lingering questions’

The rail impact study would assess infrastructure needs to accommodate passenger rail and any impact on existing freight rail service. In Alabama’s portion of the project pathway, CSX owns the tracks.

CSX and Amtrak, which would operate the proposed passenger rail service, have agreed to terms on how this impact study would be done. On the other hand, Norfolk Southern (which owns tracks elsewhere on the proposed route) has not yet agreed to terms with Amtrak, and since it will be a joint study, it will not begin until Norfolk Southern and Amtrak come to terms. This is expected imminently, and the study will take approximately six months to conduct from the finalized agreement date.

During the finance committee meeting, CSX’s Covington explained, “For this passenger rail process, a freight rail impact study is a critical step – and one that has yet to be taken. As a host railroad, CSX would be required to meet on-time performance metrics for passenger rail service – with stiff financial penalties under federal law if those metrics are not met.”

She further stated, “CSX also has contractual obligations to its customers and believes that this freight rail impact study will ensure that a plan is identified for commingling freight and passenger rail without disruption to commerce. We’ve heard a lot about the positive impact some believe this passenger service will have on tourism. At this time, we are unable to compare that with the potential negative impact the service could have on commerce – both rail and water – which are so important to the Port of Mobile and this city and state’s economy.”

One Alabama economic sector with especially a lot at stake is the coal industry. Cagle outlined that the industry generates 50% of the port’s annual revenue. He recounted his attendance at the Southern Rail Commission’s (SRC) September meeting about the project, when he first publicly expressed concerns with the freight rail impact study not having been conducted yet. At that time, a representative from Amtrak very publicly pledged to contact Cagle and work collaboratively through the industry’s concerns. However, Cagle during the finance committee meeting lamented that four months later, no one from Amtrak nor the Southern Rail Commission had followed through on that promise to contact him.

“Instead, the SRC has continued to invest all of it’s efforts into getting financial commitments for their projects rather than prioritizing the studies that will answer the important lingering questions,” Cagle said.

He told the city council members, “We recognize that you and your fellow council members are in a similar position. You have not been given the facts that you need before being asked to pledge the City’s financial support of this project. Just as we would like to see the results of an objective freight rail study, you would like know how much passenger rail will cost the city, and what, if any, return on the investment the city will receive. These are all prudent questions that could be answered sooner, not later.”

Covington also highlighted funding questions in her remarks.

“While there has been considerable conversation about the cost of operating Gulf Coast passenger rail, there has been very little discussion about the necessary infrastructure to host freight and passenger rail – as well as who will pay for that infrastructure and the associated maintenance costs,” Covington noted. “Infrastructure improvements like double tracks and sidings to accommodate increased train traffic must be identified, funded and built for freight and passenger rail to effectively co-exist.”

The city council is currently being asked to fork up $3.048 million to provide the local match for a federal grant the SRC is applying for related to the project.

However, Covington, referring to remarks recently made by a senior Amtrak official, detailed how that could just be the beginning of city funds needed for the project, as well as how this could be the last Amtrak project of its kind to even need local or state funds — potentially a major slap in the face to Alabama taxpayers.

This entire funding picture got even fuzzier within the past week. Last Tuesday, Mr. Ray Lang – the senior director of state government affairs for Amtrak – testified before a Tennessee Legislative Committee about new passenger rail in Tennessee. I appeared before this same committee, and was very surprised by some key points of Mr. Lang’s testimony about the financing of passenger rail. Specifically:

– Lang said the following about funding of Amtrak passenger rail projects: “Our vision is to create a program at the outset that doesn’t require a match. Because the upfront hurdles here have proven to be almost insurmountable for new states to start new service, and we just think to do this you have to do it right and you have to give states 100% federal capital to start these new services… Our proposal that we will be proposing is 100% federal capital.” Lang added, “The grant programs that are in place are woefully insufficient.”

– As for operating deficits of passenger rail and who covers those financial shortfalls, Lang said: “Yes, the law is very clear: the state makes up the difference. The 2008 law… I think the spirit of that was to lower the federal appropriation for Amtrak and so they basically said short-distance trains are funded by the state or they don’t exist. The state makes up the difference, so on the books they break even.”

In total, one council member brought up the point that for the average $18 a passenger would pay to take a trip on the planned Gulf Coast Passenger Rail route, taxpayers would be subsidizing another $180. This is an uncommonly high ratio of taxpayer subsidization, a SRC consultant testified.

Project proponent goes on the attack

Speaking later in the finance committee meeting, a consultant for SRC acting as a proponent of the project took a different tact.

Dan Dealy, who lives in Baldwin County, questioned the relative importance of the Port of Mobile compared to tourism and called out Governor Kay Ivey’s administration. Ivey has made it clear she wants the freight rail impact study conducted before committing state taxpayer money to the project.

Speaking about economic growth in the Mobile area, Dealy said, “It hasn’t all been just the port. We don’t have new restaurants, new places to go at night, new office buildings because we have put in a container terminal. Or because we are building a new roll-on/roll-off facility … ”

He asserted that the Gulf Coast Passenger Rail project is the type of thing that will attract millennials to live in Mobile, thus increasing the city’s economic competitiveness. The Port of Mobile supports an estimated 134,608 jobs, has a $486.9 million tax impact and provides a total economic value of $22.4 billion.

Dealy urged the city council to support a resolution committing “financial support” to the project, whether the freight rail impact study is completed or not — and regardless of what the impact would be on commerce in Mobile and throughout Alabama.

“[The financial commitment to the project has been] already endorsed by the State of Mississippi, State of Louisiana. We’re here because our [Alabama] state government has not made that commitment, because apparently they’re not as willing to make an investment in Mobile as you are,” Dealy claimed.

‘Due diligence’

“There are questions that still remain, and Governor Ivey wants to make certain that we have all the facts before making a commitment to a project that will impact Alabama in the years to come,” Ivey’s press secretary, Gina Maiola, has said previously. “Governor Ivey says that we must do our due diligence and most wisely and effectively use our funds.”

CSX’s Covington also provided an effective rebuttal to Dealy’s assertion in her remarks.

She outlined, “CSX is not opposed to this project. But the SRC appears to be asking Mobile and others to commit money on a ‘cart before the horse’ basis. What is the impact to freight commerce and the Port of Mobile? What is the impact to future economic development in the area? What infrastructure improvements must first be made, and who is paying for it? How much money is needed to fund operations and, who will fund shortfalls to break even? Is Amtrak committed to the current funding model or are they pursuing a 100% federal funding model?”

“This council and the citizens you represent deserve answers to these fundamental questions before making a sizable financial commitment for this project,” Covington concluded.

The Mobile City Council will meet at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday. A resolution that made any city financial commitment for the project contingent on the freight rail impact study being conducted failed to garner a second during the finance committee meeting last week.

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

12 hours ago

Livingston, Whatley elected to lead Alabama Space Authority

The Alabama Space Authority this week held a meeting, respectively electing State Senators Steve Livingston (R-Scottsboro) and Tom Whatley (R-Auburn) as chair and vice-chair of the body.

Both senators, who were appointed by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) to the authority, plan to work diligently towards making Alabama a leader in the space industry, according to a joint release.

The Alabama Space Authority was created in 2017 to promote research and development of new space exploration and spaceport technology; to sponsor conference and business roundtables within the aerospace, aviation and related industries; and to promote activities and industries related to exploration.

The authority includes representatives of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), the Alabama Department of Commerce, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, the Alabama Department of Transportation, the governor, the State legislature and other stakeholders and experts.

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Livingston, who recently played a leading role in the creation of the legislature’s Aerospace and Defense Caucus and serves as its chair, stated that the Alabama Space Authority will be looking into how the Yellowhammer State can further improve this industry.

“We are looking into the possibility of the Dream Chaser being able to land in Huntsville,” Livingston said. “This is going to be a great opportunity to look into how the legislature can aide in supporting the aerospace and defense industry in Alabama.”

Whatley added that he was honored to be selected as vice-chair and that space is a growing industry in Alabama.

“I’m proud to be a member … because this is a big deal for our entire state, from Huntsville to Auburn’s aerospace programs and to the robust aircraft manufacturing on the coast. Aerospace is a $12 billion industry and a key component to Alabama’s economy,” Whatley commented.

Livingston concluded by advising he expects to receive an update from the U.S. Space Command and is looking forward to bringing more space industry projects to Alabama.

RELATED: Ainsworth in Huntsville: Alabama is ‘the aerospace capital of the world’

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

13 hours ago

Lewis touts McCutcheon; Brooks touts Trump, his record with space and defense

Alabama Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) this week endorsed Chris Lewis in the GOP primary race in the Fifth Congressional District.

The surprise endorsement by McCutcheon caught many in the state off-guard because this race has flown under the radar and polling shows this race, like all of U.S. Representative Mo Brooks’ (R-Huntsville) previous primaries, handily in the bag.

But McCutcheon’s endorsement rightly got the attention of multiple media outlets and observers of Alabama politics with many wondering what this was really all about.

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So when Brooks saw the endorsement and a hostage-style video promoting it by McCutcheon, Brooks responded by highlighting the most coveted endorsement a Republican candidate for any office could get: President Donald Trump.

Brooks told Yellowhammer News:

I have the strong endorsement of President Trump, a man I worked hard with to CUT TAXES on American families and secure America’s borders! In contrast, Chris Lewis has the endorsement of legislator Mac McCutcheon, whose greatest expertise has been RAISING TAXES on struggling Alabama families!

While speaking to WVNN on Friday, Brooks noted that the endorsement on the bounds of support from the space and defense industry is laughable.

“If Mac McCutcheon is saying that Chris Lewis has more support in Research Park, that is categorically false. We have received more support from the state and defense community, vastly, vastly, vastly, vastly more support from the state and defense community than Chris Lewis has,” he told “The Dale Jackson Show.”

Brooks also touted his seniority, and how that plays into serving his district in Washington, D.C.

“The people who engage in space and defense know that my growing seniority on science, space, and technology and on House Armed Services, coupled with more than a hundred occasions in which I’ve been able to get favorable language into legislation that they’ve wanted me to get for the benefit of our country and what we do in the Tennessee Valley,” he added. “They’re my primary support base in Congress: space and defense.”​

My takeaway:

This is all pretty interesting, but the idea that a McCutcheon endorsement on these grounds can overcome the booming North Alabama economy that Brooks has been a part of since being part of the Tea Party-wave in 2010 is false.

The Trump endorsement might make better television and radio spots, and it will definitely help Brooks, but the real issue is that Lewis and McCutcheon can’t point to how Brooks hasn’t served his district well — because he has.

Barring some massive bombshell to follow up this endorsement, a battle of endorsements between Trump and McCutcheon seems like a fight that was over before it started, much like the Brooks/Lewis race.

Listen:

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN.

14 hours ago

Human clinical study begins at UAB for groundbreaking brain tumor treatment

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) continues to evolve as a worldwide leader in biomedicine, research and innovation.

Incysus Therapeutics, Inc., a Birmingham-based biopharmaceutical company, has now announced the initiation of a Phase 1 clinical study of a novel Drug Resistant Immunotherapy (DRI) technology for the treatment of patients with newly-diagnosed glioblastoma.

This trial is being conducted at UAB and is now active and open for enrollment.

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM or glioblastoma) is a devastating and fast-growing brain tumor that typically results in death within the first 15 months after diagnosis. GBM is inherently resistant to conventional therapy and accounts for approximately 52% of all primary brain tumors.

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A release from the company outlined Incysus’ innovative DRI approach, which seeks to combine conventional chemotherapies with a γδ T cell-based immunotherapy to modify the tumor microenvironment and drive the immune system. By using alkylating agents such as temozolomide, chemotherapy can activate immunity through the upregulation of the DNA damage response (DDR) pathway. A significant challenge is that such chemotherapies also kill the white blood cells needed to drive an immune response. Incysus’ technology “chemo-protects” immune cells to allow them to remain functional while DDR activation creates an immune signal that allows directed killing activity against cancer cells.

Incysus is the first company to use this type of therapy in patients, and the research marks a landmark moment for Incysus, the overall biotech industry in Birmingham and anti-cancer research across the globe.

Dr. L. Burt Nabors, MD, the co-head of neuro-oncology at UAB and the study’s principal investigator, stated, “The initiation of this clinical trial represents a significant milestone towards developing effective immune-based therapies for the treatment of GBM. We are pleased to work with … the team at Incysus to bring this innovative therapy to patients for the first time.”

Further information on the clinical trial is available here.

Incysus is a UAB spinoff company. Its success in the Magic City — and this kind of potentially revolutionary research spearheaded by UAB — is a prime example of why many legislative and industry leaders in the state, especially in the Birmingham area, are calling on Governor Kay Ivey to fund a world-class genomics facility at the university. They argue that the project could make Birmingham the “Silicon Valley of Biomedicine.”

RELATED: Planned UAB genomics project could make Birmingham the ‘Silicon Valley of Biomedicine’

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

14 hours ago

Amendment One puts kids first, politicians last

When Alabamians take the to the polls on Super Tuesday, they will either be concerned with the Democratic nominee for President of the United States or the Republican nominee for the United States Senate. More important to the future of Alabama is a constitutional amendment that would end our current model of a popularly elected state school board in favor of one appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.

Supporters of Amendment 1 argue that this would be a major step in improving Alabama’s permanent residence at the bottom of the education barrel. As it is currently designed and managed, the state board of education is doing very little to improve the quality of education in the state. Board members are trying, but clearly nothing is working very well. Supporters of the amendment argue a shake up is the best hope for improving education in Alabama. In some respects the argument does not go far enough. That is because the current process creates negative incentives for board members; because they hold their office at the behest of voters, there is every incentive for them to avoid upsetting their constituents.

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That is the chief problem with the board as it is currently construed. Board members are not uncaring or ignorant or irresponsible. Instead, they respond to the whims and wishes of voters or other powerful political interests. No matter what politicians say, they are inevitably swayed by the whispers of voters and donors. Not because they are corrupt, but because they are human. All people are prone to this, which is why the framers of the Constitution created a system that checked and balanced one human tendency against another. It’s true that voters can provide a check on board members, but that argument does not account for an additional problem.

The second problem with the current system is that voters have limits to their knowledge about education in our state. Committed parents and citizens can often learn a lot about their own schools and school districts, but rarely does even the most passionate citizen have the time and mental energy to devote beyond that. Should Amendment 1 pass, the state Senate would have a direct responsibility to ensure that the governor appoints quality people to the board, but also to make certain that the Board is making progress in evaluating and improving the quality of education in our state.

Critics argue that an appointed board would lend itself to cronyism. That’s possible, but the executive and legislative branch often have competing interests, even when they share the same partisan and ideological commitments. Those competing concerns would help smooth over concerns about patronage and cronyism. Still, the amendment will not be an easy transition given the natural tendency of politicians towards vanity and self-promotion. The current system is of a worse nature, however, as it leaves the governor and senate almost powerless to impact education policy, which is instead run by another group of politicians with little incentive to do anything that might upset the voters who put them there.

But shouldn’t voters have a say in these matters? No, at least not directly. This is because education policy is a difficult matter, and it is hard for voters to adjudicate the success or failures of these policies beyond the very narrow window of their own experience. It’s fine that we elect local school boards; they are indeed local, and voters often see those board members at church or line at Piggly Wiggly. Only the most politically involved voters are likely to have any encounter with their board members, who are busy juggling very difficult conflicts within their own districts. Each district contains such a variety of constituents that it is almost impossible for board members to adequately address those concerns, instead pandering to the one or two constituencies most likely to keep the member in office.

There is a final reason to support Amendment 1. A central feature of modern politics is the tendency of politicians to see themselves as mouthpieces instead of statesmen. Some of that is natural but other parts of it are due to the incentive structure within our own government. This is as true in Montgomery as it is in Washington D.C., and Alabamians should care far more about the goings-on in our state capital than in our nation’s capital. Since our legislature is stripped of any real influence in state education policy and therefore little accountability to voters, it leaves them free to demagogue and pander on the issue without really having to stand before the voters and take account for their time in office. The same is true for the governor. By making the governor and the state senate responsible for staffing the state school board as part of an ongoing process of appointment and confirmation, these branches of our government would finally have real skin in the game. The success of our schools would be their success, and the failure of our schools would be theirs, also.

Matthew Stokes, a widely published opinion writer and instructor in the core texts program at Samford University, is a Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.

15 hours ago

Gary Palmer honors the late NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson on House floor

U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Hoover) honored Katherine Johnson with a speech in the House chamber on Thursday.

Johnson, who passed away recently at the age of 101, was one of America’s most important mathematicians in the space race. She pioneered a place for African-American women at NASA and was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures.

“Despite intense discrimination throughout her years at NASA she remained committed to advancing America’s space program,” said Palmer during his speech in her honor.

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“She hand-calculated the flight path for America’s first crewed space mission in 1961, and also helped calculate the trajectory for the famed 1969 moon landing,” continued Palmer.

Palmer also recounted the famous anecdote when astronaut John Glenn was about to become the first American to orbit Earth and he demanded that Johnson do the calculations for his mission. Glenn trusted Johnson more than he trusted NASA’s new computer system.

Watch:

“I stand with my colleagues in the House and with countless other Americans in gratitude for Mrs. Johnson’s hard work and pioneering spirit that have undoubtedly made our country a better place,” Palmer concluded.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.