Railroad Relocation Project Gaining Steam

A much discussed plan to relocate the CSX railroad tracks is picking up steam. And Hurricane Katrina seems to be the "window of opportunity" for moving ahead with the project.

A hurricane relief bill now pending in Congress includes $700 million for purchasing railroad right of way.

Moving the CSX tracks has been talked about for years. But the hurricane has pushed it closer to reality. And while some critics are calling it a "pork barrel" project, supporters say it's an incredible opportunity.

CSX trains that roll through the heart of the coast could be a memory within two years. Seven hundred million dollars to relocate the trains is being pushed in Congress by Mississippi leaders.

"It's the perfect time. I mean there's an emphasis being put on recovery here. This is "the" time to do it. It's something that's needed doing forever," said Long Beach Mayor Billy Skellie.

He says building a new east-west highway along the existing CSX right of way has long been a good idea and makes perfect sense in Katrina's wake.

"If the railroad was out of the mix in this, and those right of ways were to be used for traffic, for roads, naturally it's going to be a safer community. And also move traffic," he says.

"Of course they've been talking about it for many years," said longtime resident, Robert Little.

Little and his wife Pauline built their house near the rail tracks just after the 1947 hurricane. He recalls an earlier time when an electric trolley ran alongside the tracks. The 88 year old says he's "ambivalent" about plans to move the rail line.

"Of course the railroad has been a good neighbor, and a bad neighbor. This crossing here, we've had lots of deaths here. But since they put the gates up, we haven't had one since," he said.

One of the most vocal critics of the railroad funding is Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who said, "It would be ludicrous for the Senate to spend 700 million dollars to destroy and relocate a rail line that's in perfect working order".

With some critics calling the railroad relocation a "pork barrel project", Sen. Trent Lott doesn't appreciate such talk.

"I'll just say this about the so-called "pork busters". I'm getting damn tired of hearing from them. They have been nothing but trouble ever since Katrina," said Sen. Lott.

The trains may still be rolling, but leaders say their days on this rail may be limited.

"I feel like this could possibly really happen. Because it's continuing. It's gathering support. And I see a window of opportunity that this could happen now," said Skellie.