Mississippi taxpayers could soon be on the hook to cover part of the cost of restoring unprofitable passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast that was ended after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) announced the award on Friday of a $33 million grant for infrastructure and capacity improvements from the Federal Railroad Administration.
The grant would pay for half of the cost of $65.9 million project to restore part of the eastern route of the tri-weekly Sunset Limited, which ran through the Mississippi Gulf Coast and connected Orlando, Florida with Los Angeles.
Under the grant, service would be extended to Mobile and require further contributions from Alabama and Florida to complete the route all the way to Orlando.
The service was terminated east of New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated the track and other infrastructure.
Mississippi’s share of the bill could add up to about $15 million, with Louisiana having already committed to spending $10 million for its part and Amtrak also adding funds.
The legislature could appropriate funds in the upcoming session after an attempt didn’t make it out of committee in this session. Senate Bill 2542, authored by state Sen. Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula), would’ve appropriated $4,696,500 toward Gulf Coast rail restoration and improvements to freight rail service in the area as well.
In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey is taking a cautious approach before adding her support to appropriating nearly $5 million state funds for the route.
She cited concerns with the Alabama State Port Authority as one reason for caution. Port Authority director Jimmy Lyons said in 2017 that passenger rail out of Mobile would be a major disruption to freight operations connected with the Alabama State Docks.
Advocates say that restoring rail service would help promote economic activity along the route. One of these groups is the Southern Rail Commission, which is seeking more extensive passenger rail in the South.
The SRC cites a May 2018 study by the Trent Lott National Center at the University of Southern Mississippi that says that construction and renovation of the rail lines on the Coast would add $34 million to the state’s economy. It also says restoration of passenger rail on the Mississippi Gulf Coast between Mobile and New Orleans would add $6 million annually to the economy.
The problem is that even Amtrak admits that restoring service will result in a hefty bill for taxpayers, since the quasi-public corporation relies heavily on federal and state subsidies to keep running.
A new Sunset Limited train that connects Orlando with Los Angeles wouldn’t be profitable and would require annual subsidies from taxpayers along the route. According to the latest statistics from Amtrak, the Sunset Limited route lost 2.6 percent of its ridership between fiscal year 2015 and 2016.
Amtrak’s own numbers in its 2015 feasibility study indicate that restoring service from New Orleans to Orlando would result in a $5.48 million loss annually.
Just running a roundtrip, standalone train from Mobile to New Orleans would yield a loss of $4 million. Having both a tri-weekly train from Orlando to Los Angeles and a separate round trip service between Mobile and New Orleans connection would result in an annual loss of $9.49 million.
This figure doesn’t include improvements to the rail infrastructure and stations along the route, which would cost, at minimum, $14,718,000 for just the restoration of passenger rail service and $102,954,000 for what the study says is a service level for ongoing operations.
Passenger rail hasn’t fared well in Mississippi, which has two Amtrak routes that pass through the state.
The Crescent train connects New Orleans with New York, while the City of New Orleans links the city with Chicago.
The most recent Amtrak numbers from 2017, show that the number of passengers boarding and detraining in Mississippi decreased from 118,200 in 2011 to 96,100 in 2018. That’s a decrease of nearly 18.7 percent.
According to the Amtrak 2015 feasibility study for restoration of rail service east of New Orleans, total trips declined from 148,387 in fiscal 1993 to 81,348 in 2005, a decrease of 45.2 percent.
Even taking into account that the federal government’s fiscal year ends on September 30, the numbers still pale when the final full year of service (2004) is considered, down 35 percent from 1993.
The study blamed delays with the train as one of the key factors in the lowered ridership. These delays, according to the study, were due to interference with freight operations from CSX — which owns the track between New Orleans and Mobile — and equipment malfunctions with Amtrak locomotives and passenger cars.
The Gulf Coast Working Group’s report to the U.S. Congress on restoring Gulf Coast rail service also mentions that limited space with rail yards and bridge crossings would “present a challenge to operating passenger trains on schedule.”