MOBILE, Ala. (WLOX) - The future of Amtrak passenger rail service is still hanging in the balance after city leaders in Mobile postponed their vote Tuesday morning.
That leaves leaders across the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans still in limbo as they wait to see if Alabama will allow the rail service to extend to Mobile.
After hearing from multiple Amtrak supporters and a few people opposed to the rail service, council members decided to push back the vote until Feb. 4 - just one day before the federal deadline.
The council said they wanted more time to to understand how the city would allot the money. They expected to have that information by next week. However, some council members expressed hope that the measure would be successfully passed.
“If Gulfport, Pascagoula, Biloxi...can move forward progressively, then surely we can,” said city council vice president Levon Manzie. “I’m going to support this resolution, I’m sponsoring it. I believe this is a train whose time has come and I’m hopeful that we can move forward positively.”
Mobile is being asked to commit up to $3 million over three years in city funds to pay for the Amtrak service beginning in 2023. That’s the year passenger rail trips between New Orleans and Mobile are expected to begin.
That rail service will only be possible, however, if Mobile passes the vote allowing the project.
Dr. Stephen McNair with the Southern Rail Commission answered questions from the Mobile City Council at the meeting. McNair clarified that Mobile is being asked for $3 million to help offset the costs.
However, there is a Feb. 5 deadline issued by the federal government. If a decision isn’t given by that deadline, the investment for Mobile would double to $6 million, he told council members.
“Should a letter of intent pass, (the Southern Rail Commission) would take it back to the governor’s office," said McNair. "Then, it’s time for the state to match that money or come up with other funds. If they can’t find the money for the infrastructure, the deal is off. The train would stop in Pascagoula.”
He went on to say that a six-month study has been approved to look closer at how a rail service would affect the Port of Mobile but, because of the deadline, they do not have time to wait for it to be completed.
Instead, McNair urged the city council to vote to approve the $3 million, telling them that the commitment to put up those funds would only be necessary once the SRC secures additional funding from the state and other partners to fund infrastructure.
The plan is for the service to make four stops in South Mississippi, as well as stops in New Orleans and Mobile. Mississippi and Louisiana have already committed to funding.
The Mobile City Council’s financial committee withdrew its support last week. Alabaman’s governor is also not in favor of the project.
The Washington, D.C.-based Rail Passengers Association warns that if Mobile doesn’t get on board with an endorsement, the entire Gulf Coast project is in jeopardy, along with economic investments totaling $170 million.
Louisiana and Mississippi have already approved funding to restart the trains. Mississippi has allocated close to $18 million; Louisiana has allocated close to $10 million.
Officials at the Alabama State Port, however, have said passenger trains could disrupt freight service through the port.
Amtrak hasn’t operated along the coast since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.