3 months ago

Gulf Coast Passenger Rail project could hurt Port of Mobile, Alabama economic development

MONTGOMERY — A passenger rail service from Mobile to New Orleans sounds nice, and certainly could have benefits for tourism in areas of the Gulf Coast. However, do these positives actually outweigh the costs and other impacts involved?

This was the subject of spirited debate at Friday’s meeting of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), with more questions than answers coming to light as far as Alabama is concerned.

The SRC, comprised of commissioners from its three member-states: Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, is currently pushing its Gulf Coast Passenger Rail project, urging the Yellowhammer State to join in as the last remaining signatory needed.

However, there is a good reason why Governor Kay Ivey’s administration is proceeding cautiously: A study has not even been conducted yet that would truly measure the project’s impact on economic development in Alabama.

And, despite the fact a railway operational/capacity simulation study has not been conducted, communities in Mississippi have already begun spending taxpayer money on infrastructure for the project — and are urging others to similarly apply for and spend funds.

The simulation 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, recently agreed to terms on how this impact study would be done. On the other hand, Norfolk Southern 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.

One step forward, two steps back?

Meanwhile, the Alabama State Port Authority, which owns and operates the public terminals at the Port of Mobile, says everything they have seen suggests that the proposed passenger rail service would negatively impact the port.

In a statement to Yellowhammer News, Port Authority vice president of marketing Judith Adams stressed, “The Port Authority is extremely concerned over passenger rail interruptions on what is already a heavily used rail corridor crucial to Alabama’s seaport.”

Amtrak service would move two trains daily (4 transits) on the CSX mainline from the west into downtown Mobile then back west. CSX alone runs about 20 trains per day, making it a very congested rail corridor, according to the Port Authority, which uses that line as well.

Currently, the Port Authority has 4 unit trains transiting that line every day, carrying Alabama export coal bound for the McDuffie Coal Terminal that accounts for half of the port’s total business and handles approximately 85% of Alabama’s coal production. Additionally, the number of railed coal trains could double in the next three years should Alabama’s largest miner, Warrior Met Coal, move forward with construction of a potential new mine.

The use of that CSX line 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.

All of this traffic on a single line would be forced into sidings, creating more congestion and delay, so passenger rail could pass. Passenger trains would get priority use of the line, per the Port Authority. This congestion alone would strictly be focused on the downtown area line.

Passenger trains could also impact CSX freight moving in and out of its Hamilton Blvd./Theodore yards west of the city. CSX services the Theodore Ship Channel industries, such as Millard Maritime, Conrad Yelvington, Worthington, Diversified Foods, Ferguson, Bayou Concrete, Holcim, Bayer, Evonik, INEOS Phenol. Trains carrying products for these industries would also have to sit on sidings or delay entry onto the line to accommodate the passenger trains, according to the Port Authority.

“All trains calling on the Port Authority’s terminals on the river, as well as CSX served industries on the Theodore Ship Channel, utilize the same CSX track the passenger rail service would use,” Adams said. “All of that traffic experience delay due to existing heavy traffic on the CSX line, so adding passenger rail traffic will only further delay services to customers using the port.”

“Neither the SRC or Amtrak have shown anything to leads us to believe that this service would not interfere with freight traffic at Alabama’s only deep-water seaport,” she concluded.

In addition to the Port of Mobile’s concerns about negative impacts of the passenger rail project, customers of rail freight services in Alabama have a lot potentially at stake here, too.

Some of the state’s biggest industries and job creators rely on freight and the port for both exports and imports, and these stakeholders want to be at the table as the project is discussed.

While proponents of the passenger rail project claimed on Friday that all stakeholders were present at a recent meeting in Mobile, this closed-door meeting did not actually see freight services or freight customers invited.

Patrick Cagle, president of the Alabama Coal Association, was present at Friday’s meeting in Montgomery and asked that his important industry and others across Alabama be included in the ongoing discussions.

After all, to truly weigh the pros and cons of the proposed project, the SRC and other proponents involved need to hear and understand the realities faced by freight customers.

Additionally, with as much investment of private, federal, state and local funds continues to go into growing the Port of Mobile’s international competitiveness, rushing into something without all of the facts could jeopardize the upward trajectory of Alabama’s booming economy.

Cagle, in a statement to Yellowhammer News after the meeting, especially praised Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Ivey for their leadership and stalwart support of the port. He said his industry and his association are not opposed to passenger rail services, but that lingering questions should be answered and all due diligence conducted before Alabama joins the project.

“I understand and appreciate the potential benefits that passenger rail service could have along the Gulf Coast, including with Alabama’s tremendous tourism industry,” Cagle said. “However, all that we ask is that all stakeholders have a seat at the table so we can take a comprehensive, inclusive look at the benefits and potential pitfalls involved. This is not just our state’s coal industry, but the many commodities and products shipped into and out of Mobile.”

“Senator Shelby’s historic leadership and the landmark accomplishment of Governor Ivey’s Rebuild Alabama Plan mean brighter days for Alabama’s economy and future generations,” he continued. “If there is even a chance that the major investments being made into the Port and the significant progress we are making could be negatively affected by this project, I believe that caution is absolutely the right approach. A true impact study should be completed to make sure this is right for the people of our great state.”

The deputy director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), Anita Archie, is a member of the SRC. During Friday’s meeting, she stressed that not only do these questions remain unanswered pertaining to economic development and trade, but that paying for Alabama’s portion of the project costs is still up in the air, too.

She said talks continue on how to pay for these costs but stressed that this remains a serious issue.

In a series of remarks, Archie raised pressing concerns about rushing ahead with so many integral questions yet to be addressed — and so many facts admittedly unknown. This includes how operation and maintenance costs will be paid for by Alabama taxpayers after the first three years, which are being covered by federal tax dollars. These O&M costs will rise into the millions, she said.

Archie, the former senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Business Council of Alabama and former deputy mayor of Montgomery, knows both the private sector and public sector perspectives involved in major projects like this passenger rail venture. She seemed to be the voice of reason in the room on Friday, expressing that it was premature to ask Alabama to sign off on the project and questioning why the other two states have already done so.

The good news?

Governor Kay Ivey seems to be standing up to external pressures to dive in headfirst and commit state money without first having all of the information with which to make an informed decision.

For some reason, Alabama Media Group in a complete non-sequitur of an article last week even tried to imply the governor’s current caution is somehow a “retaliation” for the I-10 toll bridge proposal in Mobile dying. This came despite Ivey’s position on the passenger rail project remaining consistent for several months now.

In a statement to Yellowhammer News after the meeting on Friday, Ivey’s press secretary said, “The governor recognizes the seriousness and largeness of the decision on this multi-year, multi-million dollar project.”

“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,” Gina Maiola continued. “Governor Ivey says that we must do our due diligence and most wisely and effectively use our funds.”

This type of approach from Alabama’s governor has drawn the praise of Grover Norquist, founder and leader of Americans for Tax Reform.

Norquist told Yellowhammer News on Friday that Ivey is being “very courageous” in her current stance on the passenger rail project.

“Politicians are asking for millions of dollars to take [private rail tracks] and create this new southern line,” he outlined. “Even Amtrak itself admits that this new line would attract 26 riders per train and require a $6 million annual subsidy in addition to the money being spent [to get the project up and running] now.”

Norquist advised that everything he has seen points to the project being a wasteful use of government funds.

“One — you could take a bus, you could take an Uber,” he said, speaking to alternative transport methods along the same route. “This is not an area where you have to take a train to get there. It’s not faster, it’s not a speedy trip [by train]. And it’s a whole bunch more money to subsidize Amtrak, which already gets about a billion dollars subsidy a year (nationally).”

This view is not just held by Norquist. In fact, the president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy recently published a compelling op-ed arguing why, “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for passenger trains we aren’t using.”

What’s next?

The next meeting of the SRC is December 6 in Bay St. Louis, MS, which is set to get a stop on the proposed passenger rail route. The mayor will be hosting the SRC members at his house the night before the meeting for a dinner.

Even if Alabama does not sign off on the project, the project is expected to continue, just without a stop in Mobile and Alabama funds being used.

Archie and other Alabama SRC commissioners on Friday asked their colleagues for a “drop-dead” date by which Alabama must decide, but no solid answer was provided.

The easternmost stop in Mississippi is slated to be in Pascagoula, which is an approximately 40-minute drive from Mobile.

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

49 mins ago

Watch: Alabamians line up with American flags to welcome slain Naval ensign home

As seen in a video posted on Twitter, people lined the streets of Enterprise on Friday to welcome home Navy Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson.

Watson, a 23-year-old Coffee County native who also spent many of his formative years in Blount County, was killed in last week’s shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

The hero’s body arrived at Dothan Regional Airport on Friday and then a procession took him to Searcy Funeral Home in Enterprise.

Considering Fort Rucker’s presence, the area has a high percentage of military families, making Watson’s murder that much harder on the Wiregrass community. People lined the procession route with American flags, honoring his service, sacrifice and life.

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A public memorial service for Watson will take place at the Enterprise High School Performing Arts Center at 11:00 a.m. next Saturday, December 21.

Burial will be the following day at the Alabama National Cemetery in Montevallo. Governor Kay Ivey has ordered flags to half-staff on that day of internment: Sunday, December 22.

RELATED: How the hometown of a NAS Pensacola shooting hero is paying tribute to one of their own

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

1 hour ago

‘God loves you. Jesus paid the price’: Secret Santa pays off all layaways at Alabama Walmart

Christmas came a little early for several shoppers with layaway purchases at the Walmart in Anniston.

As reported first by ABC 33/40, an anonymous Alabama man came into the store recently and paid off the entire layaway balance at the time. The total value of the items he paid off was reportedly $65,000.

All the Secret Santa requested in return?

That each customer with a layaway item he paid off received a note, each with just the same seven words:

“God loves you. Jesus paid the price.”

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While the man’s tremendous act of generosity was greatly appreciated by customers ABC 33/40 interviewed, that seven-word message seemed to touch people powerfully in and of itself as well.

“That really topped it off,” Kandy Ward explained. “I really loved the message that he put out there and I think that’s what he wanted to do.”

Another shopper, Hannah Haynes, agreed.

“Everyday I wish I could thank the anonymous person for being so obedient (in his faith),” she said.

Haynes added that she stuck the note on her refrigerator and plans to keep it there, letting it serve as a motivator.

“Everyday I’m gonna wake up like, ‘How can I bless someone?'” Haynes remarked. “How can I show someone that type of love?”

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

2 hours ago

Byrne introduces bill allowing cartels to be treated as terrorist organizations under federal law

Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01) is leading the charge in the U.S. House of Representatives to be able to officially treat international drug cartels as terrorist organizations under federal law, something that President Donald Trump has recently expressed as a priority of his.

Byrne announced on Friday that he, along with Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-WI), has introduced the Significant Transnational Criminal Organization Designation Act.

This legislation would create a new federal designation, “Significant Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs),” which has more stringent sanctions than the existing transnational criminal organization designation. The penalties for Significant TCOs would mirror many of the penalties for entities currently designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), including sanctions on organization members and their families, travel restrictions and increased penalties for American citizens who grant them material assistance.

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In a statement, Byrne said, “We should not have to tolerate transnational criminal organizations exporting drugs and violence into our country.”

“This bill will enhance our ability to come after these groups and keep our communities and citizens safe at home and abroad. Congress should rally behind this effort and show these groups that there are severe consequences for their actions,” he advised.

This comes after nine dual U.S.-Mexico citizens were viciously slain by cartel members in northern Mexico on November 4.

Sanctions the federal government would be able to impose on Significant TCOs under Byrne’s legislation include:

  • Barring organization members and their immediate families from admission into the United States
  • Freezing assets
  • Seeking civil and criminal penalties against individuals providing material assistance or resources to the organization.

The bill also would require the president to submit a report to Congress detailing the government’s findings from the November 4 attack, including whether the cartel responsible should be designated as a Significant TCO.

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) has introduced the Senate version of Byrne’s bill.

Alabama has also had its problems with cartel-related violence and crime.

Attorney General Steve Marshall (R-AL) has advised that the Sinaloa Cartel is responsible for “almost all” drugs imported into the Yellowhammer State. That cartel is headquartered in Culiacán, Mexico.

Just two weeks ago, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office took down two suspected Mexican cartel members in a major firearms and drug bust in the Birmingham metropolitan area.

Then, of course, there are the more shocking examples from the recent past, such as when cartel members in Alabama stabbed a grandmother to death and then beheaded her 13-year-old Huntsville granddaughter.

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

5 hours ago

Ivey orders flags to half-staff honoring slain Navy ensign

Governor Kay Ivey announced Friday that she is ordering all flags on government grounds to be flown at half staff on Sunday, December 22 to honor the life of Navy Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson.

Watson, an Enterprise native who spent many of his formative years in Blount County, was killed in the shooting at Naval Air Station in Pensacola, FL, on December 6.

“Let us remember the life and service of Ensign Watson, who died as a hero trying to protect his fellow service members. We offer our heartfelt condolences and prayers to his family, friends and community,” the governor said in her directive.

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According to reports relayed to the media by his family, the 23-year-old Watson saved many lives with his actions on the day of the shooting. His heroic actions drew praise from many of Alabama’s political leaders.

“After being shot multiple times he made it outside and told the first response team where the shooter was and those details were invaluable,” Adam Watson, the victim’s brother, told the Pensacola News Journal (PNJ).

Watson’s father, Benjamin, said of his son, “His mission was to confront evil, to bring the fight to them, wherever it took him. He was willing to risk his life for his country. We never thought he would die in Florida.”

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

You’re invited!

The biggest birthday party in Alabama’s history is taking place on December 14, and you are invited! Join us in Montgomery for the grand finale celebration of our state’s 200th birthday.

Watch the parade, listen to concerts and performances, visit open houses and much more.

This is sure to be a day you don’t want to miss. The event is free to the public and lasts all day starting with an elaborate parade at 10:00 a.m. The parade will travel from Court Square Fountain in downtown Montgomery up Dexter Avenue to the State Capitol. There will be marching bands, city floats and unique displays of Alabama history on wheels, such as the USS Alabama and U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

The parade is a great opportunity for families to enjoy the celebration together – and it’s only the beginning of a packed day. Following the parade, Governor Kay Ivey will dedicate Bicentennial Park. The afternoon will offer performances, exhibitions and open houses throughout downtown Montgomery. The day will conclude with a concert featuring popular musicians from Alabama and the history of Alabama presented in a never-before-seen way.

Visit Alabama 200 Finale for a complete rundown of the day’s events.

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