Many questions remain about Gulf Coast passenger rail
The Southern Rail Commission (SRC) is urging the Mobile City Council to commit $3 million in public money to match a “one-time federal grant opportunity” for which they are applying – but it appears they are applying prematurely. For several years now, the SRC has been pushing for new passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile. The SRC has come forward with urgent requests on multiple occasions, first approaching the Governor, and now the Mobile City Council, claiming each time that this opportunity for renewal will be “lost.” However, in their efforts to promote passenger rail, the SRC is short-circuiting the established process for ensuring the orderly and effective coexistence of passenger rail service and freight rail service – both of which must operate on the same rail lines.
This coexistence is critical to the freight rail service which is relied upon by some of the largest employers in the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and requires an initial impact study that will ensure a passenger rail implementation that will not negatively impact commerce. It has been reported that the host railroads (CSX & Norfolk Southern) are currently working with Amtrak on the terms of such a study. Once agreed upon, the impact study is estimated to take four to six months to complete. While the SRC has referenced a previous freight rail study that was conducted when they were contemplating long-distance service between New Orleans and Orlando, updated freight information and service times must be modeled in order to get an accurate picture of the impact to current and future freight rail service.
The SRC touts the economic benefits of tourism resulting from passenger rail, but any such benefits must be weighed against any negative financial impact to freight rail commerce. To that end, the freight impact study could help answer the following questions: What is the impact of increased rail traffic to current industries depending on freight rail service? What is the impact to potential expansion of area industries and the recruitment of new manufacturers who may consider reliable freight rail service in their site selection? With recent investments in the Port of Mobile, is new passenger rail traffic an enhancement or hindrance to the continued success of one of our state’s key economic engines? The elected officials being asked for financial commitments to passenger rail – and the taxpayers who will be footing the bill – deserve answers to these questions.
Most recently, the SRC has stated they intend to apply for a federal grant under the Restoration and Enhancement (R&E) program for the operation of this passenger service. But in addition to the operational costs of passenger rail, there must also be an assessment of the necessary infrastructure improvements to allow passenger rail and freight rail to operate on the same lines. Several SRC members have indicated that the state of Alabama and Mobile County will be approached to help cover some of these costs, which are also unknown until the completion of a full study between the parties. Will the City of Mobile be asked to further subsidize passenger rail if either of those entities balk at a funding request?
Governor Ivey has made it clear she would like the benefit of the freight rail impact study completed before committing state funds for Gulf Coast passenger rail. Should the City of Mobile commit funds without having the complete information the Governor has requested? Rather than proceeding under this “cart before the horse” scenario, the SRC should allow the study to be completed so that everyone has the benefit of full information. Our state and local economy, the jobs associated with it, and the taxpayers who will foot the bill, deserve no less.
The Alabama Railway Association is a non-profit association that was founded in 2003. It is a trade organization that represents all railroads in Alabama, from Short lines to Class I Railroads, along with many Associate Members that supply services and/or materials to support railroad operations.
The purpose of the Alabama Railway Association is to promote and support Alabama railroads within the state of Alabama, to assist in improving rail service within the state of Alabama, to increase railroad safety awareness within the industry and to the public, and to provide for interchange of ideas and cooperation among railroad businesses and state and local governments.
Maeci Walker is the executive director of the Alabama Railway Association