After several delays, the Mobile City Council voted to spend $3.04 million in taxpayer funds on bringing passenger rail service to the city.
The resolution passed 6-1 after Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson agreed to support the measure, contingent upon an upcoming study on how the service would affect CSX freight service to the Port of Mobile and whether other matching funds to secure the service are provided.
Stimpson’s letter also said that any decision by the city to participate in the grant was not a financial obligation for Mobile county or the state of Alabama.
District 5 Councilman Joel Daves, a long-term critic of the project, was the lone dissenting vote.
Mississippi has already committed about $15 million in state taxpayer money to the project, with Louisiana adding $10 million. The decision came one day before a federal deadline to receive the matching funds from the federal government.
Mobile’s outlay would be 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-owned tracks that run along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“They will get on that train to come to our two bowl games (the Senior Bowl and the Lendingtree Bowl) and the Moonpie Drop,” said District 1 councilman Fredrick Richardson. “They will get on that train to get on the cruise ship. The Clotilda (the last slave ship to arrive in the U.S. in 1859) will be a gold mine and people from around the world will come to see the Clotildaand they’ll do it on the Amtrak train.
“Those of you who say you can go to New Orleans easier (than a train), I guarantee that you are going on the interstate built by the federal government and that’s our taxpayers’ money. You’re being subsidized. You didn’t build no road to New Orleans.
“The Federal government built it, with our tax money, so you can go to New Orleans. It’s the same tax money. If we can let you drive a car on the interstate and the government subsidizes (it), you can get on the Amtrak.”
The Southern Rail Commission told the council last week that if it didn’t appropriate the money, the train’s terminus would be in Pascagoula rather than Mobile.
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. The SRC has said repeatedly that these numbers are “conservative” and that the train will likely cost less to operate because of ridership higher than the estimates.
Similar routes have existed in the past, but 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.