Bay St. Louis councilman says you need to spend money before you'll know if taxpayer funded rail makes money

By Steve Wilson
January 28, 2020

Mobile, Alabama’s City Council will delay its decision on whether to spend $3.04 million in taxpayer funds on bringing passenger rail service to the city.

The council voted unanimously to postpone the resolution until the next meeting on February 4 on whether to authorize the matching funds for Amtrak over the next three years starting in 2023. This twice-daily service would connect the Port City with New Orleans via CSX trackage that runs along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Mississippi has already committed about $15 million in state taxpayer money to the project, with Louisiana adding $10 million. The decision will be one day before a federal deadline to receive the matching funds from the federal government.

Stephen McNair from the Southern Railroad Commission told the council that if the city couldn’t find the funds to pay for the rail service, the train’s terminus would be in Pascagoula.

“I believe this is a train whose time has come and I’m hopeful that we can move forward positively,” Council vice president Levon Manzie said. Manzie sponsored the resolution on the council’s agenda for the rail funding, which was rejected by the council’s finance committee last week.

Gary Knoblock, a councilman at-large in Bay St. Louis, told that the Mississippi Gulf Coast is all behind bringing rail back to the area.

“I know Alabama has been concerned with the costs and whether it will bring tourists,” Knoblock said. “No one really knows until you do something. Unfortunately, you have to spend money to find out. It’s hard to make decision on something like that without knowing for sure something will happen.

The Federal Rail Administration — under the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program (CRISI) — is providing up to $32,995,516 in taxpayer funds for improving crossings, bridges, sidings and other infrastructure along the route. 

The federal grants that would be provided to enact Amtrak service are meant to get the service online. The first year, the grants would provide 80 percent of the operating costs, declining to 60 percent in the second year and 40 percent in the third.

A 2015 Amtrak study says that a twice-daily train between Mobile and New Orleans would draw 38,400 riders annually and likely cost about $7 million annually to operate. Similar routes have existed from 1984 to 1985 and 1996 to 1997, but both ended because state taxpayer funds were no longer appropriated for that purpose. 

The Southern Rail Commission is an Interstate Rail Compact created in 1982 by Congress and consists of commissioners appointed by governors from Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. 


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