2 years 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

7 hours ago

Alabama lineworker training programs graduate spring classes

Bishop StateLawson State and Jefferson State community colleges are investing in the future by offering technical training programs to prepare students for careers in the skilled trades.

Through this innovative partnership, students can learn the fundamentals of electricity as well as the math and science knowledge needed to work on power lines. In addition to classroom instruction, students receive hands-on practice in an outdoor learning laboratory, honing their new skills so they are job-ready upon graduation.

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This spring, 39 students successfully completed lineworker training programs in Birmingham and Mobile.

As part of its ongoing commitment to workforce development, Alabama Power Company partners with these colleges to offer lineworker training programs.

“We are excited to partner with these outstanding colleges and provide opportunities for Alabamians to train for great, safe careers as lineworkers,” said Jeff Peoples, Alabama Power executive vice president of Customer and Employee Services. “Helping ensure our state’s workforce is well-represented and prepared to succeed today and in the economy of the future is an important way we seek to elevate Alabama.”

Post-graduation response has been favorable from hiring companies.

“Alabama Power and other utility partners have been extremely impressed with the quality of hires from these programs,” said Tom McNeal, Alabama Power Workforce Development Program manager. “I encourage utility companies and contractors seeking quality candidates and students interested in applying for the programs to contact the school in their area.”

Potential students who want to apply or learn more about the program should contact:

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

10 hours ago

Smiths Station celebrates two decades through new city clock

This June, Smiths Station will mark 20 years of incorporation, and the city is planning to celebrate the past, present and future in the most momentous way. City officials led by Mayor F.L. “Bubba” Copeland unveiled a city clock that will honor history while looking to the future.

Nestled between Phenix City and Columbus, Georgia, Smiths Station is one of the three fastest-growing cities in Alabama, according to state officials. Incorporated in 2001, the Smiths Station community was founded in the early 1700s. It had an estimated population of 5,345 people in 2020.

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Copeland, the second mayor in city history, offered appreciation to the first administration in setting standards for Smiths Station’s successful 20-year history as a city.

“Thanks to the previous administration, former Mayor LaFaye Dellinger and the City Council that laid the groundwork, it was easy for us to build on that foundation, build the roof and with each passing administration, the building will get fancier and fancier,” he said.

Copeland went on to say, “the clock represents time set upon us and what we do in life.”

He said the city and community deserve the landmark and all that it signifies.

Melissa Gauntt, the daughter of Dellinger, expressed her gratitude to the foundation. She said of her mother’s work: “I know the time and commitment that she gave to the city in her 16 years as the mayor and even before becoming mayor in leading the efforts to incorporate the city. “It is truly befitting that this beautiful clock be representative of these deeds and is a striking addition to the front of City Hall.”

The clock is in downtown Smiths Station at 2336 Lee County Road 430. For more information about the city of Smiths Station, visit www.smithsstational.gov.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

12 hours ago

Hyundai lending cutting-edge hydrogen fuel cell SUV to Alabama State University

Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama (HMMA) will lend one of the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell sport utility vehicles, the Hyundai NEXO, to Alabama State University for an extended evaluation period.

Robert Burns, Hyundai’s vice president of Human Resources and Administration, made the announcement at a news conference April 6 joined by ASU President Quinton Ross in front of the ASU Lockhart Gym.

“This is truly a great time to be a Hornet as we celebrate the continuing partnership between Hyundai and Alabama State University,” Ross said. “Several weeks ago, Hyundai and ASU came together as the university hosted a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for the employees of Hyundai, and today we witness ASU partnering with Hyundai again as it loans us its high-technology vehicle, the NEXO, which will allow us to expose our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students to this first-of-a-kind vehicle.”

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The Hyundai NEXO is the first hydrogen fuel cell SUV available for commercial sale in the world. It uses hydrogen to produce electricity for the vehicle’s electric power train and its only emission is water vapor. The Hyundai NEXO is available for sale only in California. Although the NEXO is not assembled at the Montgomery plant, HMMA has two Hyundai NEXOs that are part of a ride and drive program.

“The groundbreaking spirit behind the NEXO mirrors our own mission to be an innovative manufacturer of current and future mobility solutions,” Burns said. “The partnership between ASU and Hyundai began a few weeks ago with the COVID-19 vaccine clinic. The system ASU had in place was smooth, efficient and it worked well. Today, we extend that partnership with the evaluation of the Hyundai NEXO by the university. We are excited again to be working with Alabama State University.”

ASU hosted the first of two COVID-19 vaccination clinics for Hyundai employees March 26-27. ASU Health Center personnel will administer the vaccine’s second doses to them April 16-17.

“Our partnership between ASU and Hyundai has been smooth and wonderful,” said Dr. Joyce Loyd-Davis, senior director of ASU’s Health Services. “Today’s event and our April COVID-19 vaccine’s second-round injections to Hyundai’s employees is a great example of ASU and Hyundai’s relationship jelling and extending into the future.”

Montgomery County District Judge Tiffany McCord, an ASU trustee, thanked Hyundai for being a team partner with ASU. “This is yet another positive example of President Ross putting his vision of ‘CommUniversity’ into action, which is good for both Hyundai and ASU,” McCord said.

She was joined at the news conference podium by fellow trustee Delbert Madison. “Thanks to the Hyundai family, which is a major contributor to our community,” he said. “When Hyundai shows up, it shows out.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

14 hours ago

Auburn University’s Department of Animal Sciences partners with Winpak to extend shelf life of food

Auburn University’s College of Agriculture and its Department of Animal Sciences are teaming up with global packaging manufacturer and distributor Winpak to focus on research to extend the shelf life of meat and food products.

The food product packaging research began in October 2020.

“We are grateful and excited for the unique learning opportunities that will come from utilizing a collaborative partnership,” said associate professor Jason Sawyer. “Through this partnership, Winpak and Auburn University will aid their shelf life research through the placement of a VarioVac Rollstock Packaging Machine provided by Winpak.”

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Collaborating with Winpak and working with industry leaders will not only enhance and contribute to diverse research experiences within the graduate program, but will provide undergraduate students with real-world meat and food packaging involvement, Sawyer said.

“We anticipate this project will work as the foundation to a significant relationship with Winpak, as Auburn University works in tandem with company experts to produce cutting-edge protein packaging and shelf-life solutions,” he said.

The Auburn University meat science research team goal is to provide more product value and reduce markdowns and waste at the retail counter.

Research evaluating alternative packaging of protein products can provide greater knowledge about creating safer products for consumers as a result of less microbial growth.

“Winpak is excited to partner with Auburn University on this unique opportunity,” said Tom Bonner, protein market director at Winpak and an Auburn alumnus. “Developing packaging concepts is an area where Winpak feels Auburn’s Lambert-Powell Meat Laboratory can add valuable knowledge and insight.”

Leaders in the protein industry are looking for innovative and sustainable solutions to the ever-changing demand for new packaging concepts, Bonner said.

“As Winpak continues to develop sustainable packages for the protein market, we hope this partnership will attract these industry leaders to the Lambert-Powell Meat Laboratory to conduct packaging trials and ideation sessions,” he said.

The packaging equipment at Auburn will allow for student interactions with industry leaders. The goal will be to expose students early in their pursuit of career options and facilitate better-informed students entering the workforce. The protein industry will need strong, innovative leaders to develop creative ideas to keep up with the demand for meat proteins.

“Supporting our customers and upcoming food manufacturing leaders is something we take very seriously at Winpak,” Bonner said. “We anticipate that our new collaborative relationship with Auburn University will be the spark to many unique and interesting ideas for the protein industry.”

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

14 hours ago

Nearly $100 million targeted for wildlife injured by 2010 oil spill in Gulf of Mexico

The Deepwater Horizon Regionwide Trustee Implementation Group, which includes trustee representatives from four federal agencies and the five Gulf Coast states, is seeking public input on the first post-settlement draft restoration plan.

The regional approach exemplifies collaboration and coordination among the trustees by restoring living coastal and marine resources that migrate and live in wide geographic ranges, as well as linking projects across jurisdictions.

The plan proposes $99.6 million for 11 restoration projects across all five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, and specific locations in Mexico and on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Comments will be accepted through May 6. The trustees are hosting two public webinars with open houses for questions and answers on April 15.

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The draft restoration plan evaluates projects that would help restore living coastal and marine resources injured by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill through a portfolio of 11 projects:

  • Four projects ($18.6 million) to help restore sea turtles.
  • Three projects ($7.2 million) to help restore marine mammals.
  • One project ($35.8 million) to help restore and increase the resilience of oyster reefs.
  • Two projects ($31 million) to help restore birds.
  • One project ($7 million) to help restore both sea turtles and birds.

The public is encouraged to review and comment on the draft plan through May 6 by submitting comments online, by mail or during the virtual public meetings.

Information on how to submit your comments are at the latest Regionwide Restoration Area update.

During the April 15 virtual meetings, trustees will present the draft plan and take public comments. Register and learn more about the webinars and interactive open houses.

The draft plan and more information about projects, as well as fact sheets, are posted on the Gulf Spill Restoration website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)