10 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

1 hour ago

7 Things: Ivey mandates masks, Huntsville added to coronavirus hotspot list, Trump calls out the left’s attack on America and more …

7. Low rent in Alabama isn’t low enough

  • The annual “Out of Reach” report released by the National Law Income Housing Coalition suggests that even though Alabama has one of the lowest rent costs in the country, it’s still too high and unaffordable for minimum wage workers. 
  • The report says that most minimum wage workers can’t afford the rent for a one-bedroom apartment in 95% of U.S. counties, and none can afford the rent of a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the U.S. Alabama came in 46th for housing costs, and figures that a worker in the state must earn $15.44 per hour to afford a two-bedroom rental.

6. Secret Trump voters

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  • Recent polling indicates that President Donald Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden. This trend is indicated in national polls by Rasmussen and Quinnipiac, as well as swing state polls that place him down double digits in Pennsylvania and even in Texas.
  • In Pennsylvania, a polling firm asked about “secret Trump voters,” or voters who don’t want to say they support Trump publicly, and 57% of respondents said that those voters will not admit they support Trump but will vote for him November.

5. Trump knows what’s best for Alabama, apparently

  • President Donald Trump endorsed former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville in the U.S. Senate runoff, and now Tuberville will face U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) in the general election, so Trump has started his attacks against Jones. 
  • Trump criticized Jones for “not doing the job,” and added that Jones “doesn’t represent the views of the people of Alabama.” He went on to praise Tuberville, saying that will be “a great senator.”

4. Biden wants to get rid of the “American way of life”

  • President Donald Trump has released another attack on former Vice President Joe Biden, saying that he and “the Radical Left want to Abolish Police, Abolish ICE, Abolish Bail, Abolish Suburbs, Abolish the 2nd Amendment – and Abolish the American Way of Life.”
  • President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign national press secretary Hogan Gidley said that “Biden is waging war” on the “American way of life,” jobs and families, but Biden has attacked Trump on the coronavirus pandemic again recently, saying that “unlike this president, I’ll actually listen to the experts and head their advice.” That came in response to a report about recent tensions between the White House and Dr. Anthony Fauci. 

3. Huntsville is on the national watchlist

  • Due to the rise in coronavirus cases and the positive test percentage being more than 10%, Huntsville has been added to a national watchlist of cases, and people from the national response team are assisting the area. 
  • Dr. Pam Hudson, CEO of Crestwood Medical Center, said that the current rate of those hospitalized having to be placed in the ICU is around 30%. She said while our hospitalization numbers seem to be “flattening,” there’s still 132 people hospitalized, and the county positive test percentage is at 15%. 

2. CDC: Coronavirus could be under control in the U.S. if people wore masks

  • The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Dr. Robert Redfield has said that if everyone starts wearing a face mask, “over the next four to six, eight weeks, we can bring this epidemic under control.”
  • Due to early conflicting reports about the effectiveness of masks, many people still refuse to wear them, but statewide mask mandates are also becoming more popular as states have coronavirus case spikes, leaving governors with the options of mask mandates or shutdowns. 

1. Statewide mask order is happening

  • Governor Kay Ivey has revised the state “Safer-At-Home” health order to include a statewide mask requirement, which will supersede all current mask mandates in counties and cities. This was expected as deaths and coronavirus cases continue to increase across Alabama. 
  • While U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) praised the move, Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth has made it clear that he supports wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but he’s also voiced his opposition to the mask mandate, saying the order “is an overstep that infringes upon the property rights of business owners and the ability of individuals to make their own health decisions.”

Byrne: A fiscal reckoning

When the House returns to business next Monday, we will take up the National Defense Authorization Act I wrote about last week. Then, we will take up appropriations bills for next fiscal year, which begins October 1, and likely another coronavirus bill.

This spring I voted for both of the CARES Acts, which together spent $3 trillion. That was on top of this year’s projected total federal spending of $4.8 trillion, which was already going to add $1 trillion to our national debt. With the CARES Act spending, however, the total deficit for this fiscal year will be $3.7 trillion. The deficit for the month of June alone was $864 billion.

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Following the work of the Democrat-controlled House Appropriations Committee last week, I became very concerned about the bills they will pass out of their committee this week and that the House will vote on later this month. They are exceeding the spending cap deal reached by their leadership, Senate leadership and President Trump last year. Just as bad, they are loading up their spending bills with controversial policy riders they know Republicans won’t vote for. Unless they make a big change, I’m going to vote against the House version of appropriations for next year. I hope the Senate brings some sanity to the process.

I also have big concerns over another coronavirus bill. We’ve spent so much money already, money we don’t have and are borrowing. And I don’t agree with the Modern Monetary Theory which says deficits don’t matter. I won’t bore you with the very solid arguments against it by eminent economists because common sense is all you need to understand individuals and nations can’t borrow unlimited amounts of money over the long term. That’s even true for the richest nation the world has ever known.

Investors buy U.S. government debt in the form of treasury bills (which are government securities due to be paid in a year), treasury notes and bonds (which mature over a longer time frame), and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (bonds indexed to inflation). They don’t do that out of patriotism or the good of their hearts. This isn’t World Wars I or II where bonds are purchased in a great national effort. No, the investors who buy our debt do it for their own self-interested reasons, and they expect to be paid back in full and on time. If they believe that they may not get paid back because the U.S. won’t be able to make the ever-growing payments, they will stop buying our debt.

And that’s when reality kicks in. It recently happened to Greece and Italy, both of which experienced severe economic turmoil and downturns. It could happen here too because even the U.S. is not immune from the laws of economics. It would be catastrophic for us, but it would be catastrophic for the world as well. If the U.S. falls economically, who gains the most? The answer is China, which already has concrete plans to replace us as the most powerful country in the world. We owe them $1 trillion and counting.

So, we need to start thinking longer term which hasn’t been a U.S. strong point for some time. Yes, we must deal with COVID-19 both as a health crisis and a danger to our economy. But, it’s time to be more focused and avoid the panicky temptation to just shovel out money. The money we have already approved hasn’t even been all spent.

What should be our priorities in the next coronavirus bill? First, it’s the cost of developing and making readily available a vaccine, just as the U.S. did with the polio vaccine during my childhood. Second, it’s the care for those who contract COVID-19, which includes effective therapeutics, and protecting the caregivers themselves. Third, it’s making sure we have the tests and PPE we need. These three all deal directly with the disease because our society and economy cannot return to “normal” until we address the disease more effectively. All of us have an individual duty in this regard, to avoid large gatherings and those most at risk of the disease, to social distance and wear face masks inside buildings.

But, when we turn to the economy, I have great concerns. I know the PPP loans/grants worked to save millions of U.S. jobs and bring many of those laid off back to work. So, maybe we start there. But, as I drive around, I see many “help wanted” and “now hiring” signs, and I hear from many business owners that they can’t get employees back to work. So, we must ask the question, do we need to keep paying the extra $600 a week to those drawing unemployment? Have we created a disincentive to work? Everyone has their hand out: colleges, schools, hospitals, this industry and that industry, the states and local governments. Where will all this money come from?

So, as we approach these two big spending projects, I am very skeptical. I’m not saying I won’t vote for either, but it looks like the FY 21 appropriations bills will just be too much for me to support. On a new coronavirus bill, I’m taking a wait and see position. My mind is open but not empty. It’s time we start reckoning with our fiscal deficits – before we’re painfully forced to by our creditors.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Fairhope.

15 hours ago

Gov. Ivey meets with Dr. Deborah Birx about COVID-19

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Wednesday hosted Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, at the Alabama State Capitol.

Ivey, Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris and Birx met first in the governor’s office, before moving to a roundtable discussion with various state health care professionals, members of the business and religious communities and lawmakers.

Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary, said in a release that “Dr. Birx emphasized very strongly that this is a critical time for the South to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

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Per Maiola, Birx also lauded the governor’s new statewide mask mandate as “brilliant” and integral to keeping Alabama businesses open and operating safely.

“A variety of topics were discussed and questions were asked on anything from testing, to Remdesivir and reopening schools and churches safely. Dr. Birx explained that early on the virus seemed to be concentrated in large cities in the Northeast, however, this has not proven to be accurate in the South. She expressed how the South, specifically Alabama, has high rates statewide. Dr. Birx told the governor that she was personally worried about the South, which is why she visited our state in person. Governor Ivey is appreciative for her time and knowledge and looks forward to keeping an open dialogue with her and the Trump Administration as we work through the pandemic,” the governor’s spokesperson concluded.

RELATED: Doug Jones: Ivey’s statewide mask mandate ‘the right thing’

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

16 hours ago

Doug Jones: Ivey’s statewide mask mandate ‘the right thing’

U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) is backing Governor Kay Ivey’s statewide mask mandate, which goes into effect Thursday at 5:00 p.m. CT.

Jones is a member of the U.S. Senate Health Committee and recently hosted Dr. Anthony Fauci on his weekly live-streamed press conference.

Alabama’s junior senator also released a campaign ad encouraging members of the public to wear face masks.

In a statement on Thursday, Jones said, “Governor Ivey did the right thing today by enacting a statewide mask policy.”

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“Unlike her counterparts in other Deep South states, Governor Ivey is clearly following the advice of health care professionals,” he continued. “Many Alabama communities in COVID-19 hotspots have already taken this step, which will help limit the spread of this virus and reduce the strain on our struggling hospitals and health care workers, and it just makes sense to do it on a statewide basis.”

“We all want to move past this deadly, disruptive pandemic. By taking the simple steps of wearing a mask and social distancing, we can each do our part to protect lives and livelihoods,” Jones concluded.

RELATED: Ainsworth: Statewide mask mandate ‘an overstep’ — ‘One-size-fits-all, big government requirement’

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

16 hours ago

World Games to feature flag football for first time ever at Birmingham 2022 event

The World Games 2022 Birmingham on Wednesday announced that flag football will join its existing lineup of 32 unique, multi-disciplinary sports.

This international multisport event features sports and disciplines not included in the Olympics. The event is typically held one year after the Olympics.

Since the 2020 Olympics were postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Games in Birmingham originally scheduled for 2021 were also pushed back a year.

Wednesday’s announcement was made in partnership with the International World Games Association (IWGA), National Football League (NFL) and International Federation of American Football (IFAF).

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RELATED: World Games 2022 Birmingham names Charles Barkley as honorary co-chair — ‘Chance to show the world what this community and its people are all about’

The 2022 event in Birmingham will be the first edition of the World Games on American soil since 1981.

Hosted at historic Legion Field, flag football at the World Games 2022 Birmingham will be presented by the NFL and feature eight men’s teams and eight women’s teams from around the world.

“We are grateful that the NFL recognizes the significance that The World Games 2022 will have as the first major international sporting event in the United States coming out of this global pandemic,” stated Nick Sellers, CEO of the World Games 2022.

As the current reigning world champions, the United States men’s and women’s teams both pre-qualify. The remaining teams will be selected through the IFAF qualifying process.

“The world is longing to reconnect, and Birmingham, Alabama will play a pivotal role in that reconnection,” Sellers added. “The NFL’s partnership sends a signal to every company in the world that associating their brand with this special event is important for the world to see.”

The World Games 2022 Birmingham will take place July 7-17, 2022, and will generate an estimated $256 million in economic impact.

“Football is a staple of Southern sports and will be a welcome addition to The 2022 World Games lineup,” said Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin. “Non-contact sports like flag football are a great way to open up competition to all skill levels. That type of accessibility and inclusion is what The World Games is all about, providing incredible experiences and lasting memories for participants and spectators to enjoy. Birmingham can’t wait for the world to join us in 2022.”

NFL FLAG is an NFL licensed property of more than 1,600 locally-operated leagues and over 500,000 youth athletes across all 50 states. NFL FLAG has regular participation from more than 3 million youth and adults in the United States.

“The addition of flag football to the World Games brings tremendous global value as the NFL looks to expand the NFL FLAG brand worldwide,” commented Izell Reese, executive director of NFL FLAG. “With support from NFL Global Ambassador and NFL FLAG Chairman Russell Wilson, we’ve committed to creating more opportunities for athletes around the world to play flag, and we look forward to teaming up with the City of Birmingham and the World Games Committee to share the NFL FLAG experience with even more athletes and fans.”

“We are so excited to bring flag football to the international stage during The World Games 2022 in Birmingham,” added Seattle Seahawks quarterback, Super Bowl champion and NFL FLAG chairman Russell Wilson. “Flag football expands the sport of football by providing easier access to our game for men and women from all walks of life. With a huge international platform like this, we’ll create opportunities for kids and adults around the world to experience and learn the game of football, while helping grow the sport’s global popularity.”

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