The Mobile City Council delayed a decision on whether to provide $3 million in taxpayer funds to restart passenger service between the city and New Orleans.
According to a story on Al.com, council members were set to vote on the possible outlay on December 31, but learned that the deadline for local matching funds for a federal railroad grant was extended from January 6 to February 5.
The council will wait until its January 26 meeting before deciding to commit to providing the taxpayer money, which would be provided over the first three years the twice-daily Amtrak trains would be in operation.
The Federal Railroad Administration not only extended the deadline for local matches for its Restoration and Enhancement Grant program, but increased the amount of available funds by an additional $1.9 million to $26.3 million.
Alabama leaders, most notably Gov. Kay Ivey, have balked about providing funds to restore the service that was ended in 2005 before Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast.
Mississippi has already promised $15 million and Louisiana will provide $10 million to match more than $33 million in federal grants to upgrade the trackage and other infrastructure.
The three states would have to outlay more than $3.3 million apiece over the first three years of operation to keep the service running.
In addition to the possible money from Mobile for operations, either the state of Alabama or another government in the state would need to provide $2.2 million for capital improvements to the CSX-owned trackage between Mobile and the Mississippi state line.
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. The group is lobbying Alabama leaders to provide taxpayer funds for the project, including $2.5 million for a branch line to connect the CSX tracks to a possible new train station planned for Mobile’s downtown airport at the Brookley Aeroplex.
A plan to shift all air travel from the Mobile Regional Airport west of the city to Brookley is already in progress and city leaders are game to making it a multimodal travel hub. One airline, Frontier, is already offering service from a temporary terminal at the airport just minutes from Interstate 10 and downtown.
A 2015 Amtrak study says that a twice-daily train between Mobile and New Orleans would draw 38,400 riders annually. Similar routes have existed from 1984 to 1985 and 1996 to 1997, but both were put on a permanent siding as the three states declined to provide more taxpayer funds.
A similar passenger train, the Hoosier Line, received $3 million annually from Indiana taxpayers to provide four days per week service between Indianapolis and Chicago. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb sliced the money from his proposed two-year budget that was approved in April after ridership fell 18 percent from 33,930 rides in fiscal 2014 to 28,876 in fiscal 2018.
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. Some of this money could also be used by Mobile for a new train station.
These funds would also pay for preliminary engineering and federal environmental reviews needed for another project of the SRC, passenger service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The federal grants that would be provided to enact Amtrak service are meant to get the service operating. The first year, the grants would provide 80 percent of the operating costs, declining to 60 percent in the second year and dwindle to 40 percent in the third.