Shelby: Impact study should be completed before Amtrak can operate in Mobile — ‘It is essential’
In the latest twist to the Gulf Coast Passenger Rail saga, Alabama’s senior senator has stated unequivocally that an impact study should be completed before the project moves forward.
As Yellowhammer News has reported since 2019, the proposal would have two Amtrak passenger trains daily utilize CSX’s existing mainline from the west into downtown Mobile then back west (ultimately traveling to New Orleans).
The Alabama State Port Authority utilizes that line, and it 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.
Under federal law, all of that important freight traffic would have to yield to Amtrak’s passenger service. This is why CSX, the Port Authority and the diverse industries that rely on the Port for transporting goods have been asking for an impact study to be completed that would assess infrastructure needs to accommodate passenger rail and any impact on existing freight rail service.
CSX, Norfolk Southern (which owns tracks elsewhere on the proposed route) and Amtrak ultimately agreed on the parameters of the study, which got underway in spring 2020.
However, as Yellowhammer News reported earlier this month, Amtrak decided to end the study before its completion while also announcing the rail service from Mobile to New Orleans would begin next year, regardless of the potential adverse effects on Alabama’s economy.
More than $2 billion has recently been invested in growing and enhancing the Port of Mobile, which already contributes over 150,000 jobs and $25.4 billion in economic impact as Alabama’s seaport.
Despite bailing on the impact study, Amtrak on March 16 initiated a process before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) to force CSX and Norfolk Southern to permit the operation of its passenger rail service on the proposed Mobile-New Orleans route. In doing so, Amtrak also requested expedited consideration.
Those who know the Yellowhammer State’s economy and needs best, however, are asking the brakes to be pumped on the project.
U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the powerful vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, on Tuesday sent a letter to the heads of Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern and the STB requesting the completion of the impact study. A release from Shelby’s office regarding the letter cited concerns that new passenger rail service to Mobile could negatively impact growth and commerce in the region.
Shelby wrote in the letter, “I believe that initiating new Gulf Coast passenger rail service should be guided by the best available data and information. As one of the largest growing seaports in the United States, the Port of Mobile serves as an essential economic driver for the state of Alabama and region. … As such, prior to establishing passenger rail service in Mobile, I believe it is essential that a comprehensive analysis be completed that definitively determines the impact such service would have on existing freight rail service and the Port of Mobile. It is my hope that all parties involved can come to an amicable solution to ensure the study is completed.”
The senator also highlighted that Amtrak’s decision to forgo the completion of the study goes against a well-instituted process of completing a comprehensive analysis of the possible effects that new passenger rail service could have on existing freight operation – prior to beginning service.
“The completion of a comprehensive study prior to initiating passenger rail service is not unique to the Gulf Coast line,” Shelby advised. “It is my understanding that there is a well-established process recognized by Amtrak and the freight industries whenever passenger rail service is introduced on freight rail lines. Notably, that process has included the completion of a data-driven study identifying what additional infrastructure is necessary to prevent any potential impact on existing freight rail operation.”
Congressman Jerry Carl (AL-01) has taken a similar stand on the matter.
In a previous statement regarding Amtrak backing out of the impact study, the Coastal Alabama congressman said, “I am very disappointed in Amtrak’s decision to initiate the process to permit daily Amtrak trains between New Orleans and Mobile without upholding its commitment to a full feasibility study.”
“I strongly urge Amtrak to continue working with rail carriers and regulators to study the impact of passenger rail on Alabama’s economic interests and commercial activity at the Port of Mobile instead of seeking authority from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STP) to begin service on the Gulf Coast,” Carl added.
A large group of job creators in Alabama have also publicly requested that Amtrak complete the impact study. This includes the Business Council of Alabama, Alabama Farmers Federation, Manufacture Alabama, Alabama Forestry Assocation, Alabama Mining Association, Alabama Railway Association, Economic Development Association of Alabama and Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn