Report says Coast could see tourism boost if passenger rail service returns

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - The effort continues in bringing passenger rail service back to South Mississippi.

On Monday, the Southern Rail Commission held a meeting with residents, city and county officials to release a USM report showing the economic impact of Passenger Rail Service.

Nearly 800,000 tourists visit New Orleans annually, according Vice Chairman of the Southern Rail Commission Knox Ross.

Ross said a passenger train would be an excellent way to bring that group to the Coast. During a meeting at the Gulfport Train Depot, the commission released the report that shows the economic impact of passenger rail service.

"Is this going to pay off? Because anytime you ask anyone to invest in something, people are always worried about is this just a boondoggle or whatever? We wanted to make sure that we had a recognized group of people that got that base data and said, alright what's this going to do for us," Ross said.

The USM research team that conducted the report estimates there could be a five percent increase in tourism if the service returns to South Mississippi.

The USM team looked at historical annual ridership numbers. They found the Sunset Limited had 905 riders a year and the Gulf Coast Limited had 60x's more than the Sunset Limited. Both operated before Hurricane Katrina. "If you times the 60 and the 905 you will get a number and that number is already halfway to the five percent. The ridership is already there," said USM Professor Yual Yuan Zhang.

The goal is to bring passenger rail service back to the three coastal counties with daily round trips from New Orleans to Mobile. Amtrak would run the service.

"You're seeing millennial flock to passenger rail transportation all across the country. It's also what people my age, us boomers are choosing to do. We don't want to be out there fighting interstate, highway traffic for 20 years," said John Robert Smith, who is the chairman of Transportation for America.

USM team also estimates the return on investment for passenger rail service is between $64 million and $225 million depending on an increase in tourism. Federal funding for the restoration of passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast is available. The deadline to apply is June 21.

The grants require a non-federal match. The commission believes funding locally and from the state will cover the $14.82 million needed from Mississippi.

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