Will freight traffic be derailed by Amtrak service to Mississippi?

Will freight traffic be derailed by Amtrak service to Mississippi?

SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - Mississippi Coast leaders have supported the concept of a revived Amtrak line since it was first proposed in 2015.

Everybody liked the idea of giving New Orleans tourists an easy route to visit Coast cities, and visible support for the project is still strong.

However, in the background, there has been a conflict between freight and passenger rail operators over the project.

The two interests would have to share the same rail line, and the freight operators don’t want to pull to the side four times a day while the Amtrak train passes.

In Mobile, a vote to secure a $3 million commitment to the project has been delayed twice. On Tuesday, a decision will be made.

Part of the city’s hesitation is concern over whether an Amtrak train would interfere with the freight train activities at the city’s port.

In June when a $33 million federal grant was awarded to the Southern Rail Commission to seed infrastructure improvements for the project, Mississippi and Louisiana leaders celebrated. But in Montgomery, Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey told AL.com that she was concerned about the project’s long-term financial commitments after the federal money ran out.

She also wanted to know the impact on the Port of Mobile.

Before then, the seeds of discontent were sown in the Federal Rail Administration’s Gulf Coast Working Group, an assembly of stakeholders charged with finding a way to make the concept of passenger rail in the Gulf South work.

In May of 2017, CSX, whose line would carry the bulk of the traffic, refused to agree on a dollar figure needed to make infrastructure repairs. The gap was huge.

The Southern Rail Commission said in a letter that “CSX has demonstrated a commitment to obfuscation and deceit,” in the way they were doing business with the rest of the GCWG.

A report paving the way for the project was finally issued and money started flowing into the project. The $33 million of federal money matched by $15 million from Mississippi, $10 million from Louisiana, and $6 million from Amtrak.

Later in June, the University of Southern Mississippi National Center for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship issued a study touting the potential economic benefits of the Amtrak line.

The study said the passenger line will generate $282.58 million annually in Mississippi, including $92 million in Harrison County, but the study’s numbers were created through “aspirational scenarios.”

“Since an accurate estimate of new visitors coming into the study region by the new service was not available at the time of the study, aspirational scenarios are assessed to give decision makers perspectives of the strength of potential tourism impacts.”

The study’s author, Dr. Yuanyuan Zhang, said researchers “all agreed that you need to consider the freight to be a better study,” but time restrictions prevented it.

That omission was noted by Bill Cork of the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission. Their Bienville Industrial Park relies heavily on freight delivered on the CSX line that would have to yield to Amtrak four times a day.

In a June 2018 letter to CSX that was copied to Gov. Phil Bryant, Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and others, Cork said “We have serious concerns about the effects of passenger trains on local freight service and question the economic benefits claimed for the potential new passenger service.

“We are deeply concerned that plans and hopes for new passenger service lack context. Rail freight capacity along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is a limited and valuable resource that cannot be quickly traded for hopes for trainloads of tourists.”

The Southern Rail Commission responded with a letter countering those claims. In the end, the project was approved, but a new study must now be conducted by CSX, Norfolk Southern and Amtrak to determine how to make the rail line work with the available $66 million.

In an interview earlier this week, Ashley Edwards of the Southern Rail Commission tried to be optimistic that the competing interests would find a solution.

"So what we’re trying to find here is a solution that will allow for both passenger rail to support our tourism economy and also ensure that we have the infrastructure, the improved infrastructure, in fact, to keep our freight rail going very strong.

“So we view this not only as being a benefit for tourism as it relates to passenger rail but also to be a benefit to industrial and freight rail because of the improvements that can be made to ensure that capacity is better across the board.”

TIMELINE

Feb. 16, 2016: Sen. Roger Wicker announces formation of the Gulf Coast Working Group to study rail plans

July 18, 2017: Gulf Coast Passenger Rail Working Group’s Final Report by the Federal Railroad Administration delivered to Congress.

June 7, 2019: $33million grant from US Department of Transportation Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program to Southern Rail Commission for infrastructure. Matching amounts from Mississippi, $15 million, Louisiana $10 million, and Amtrak, $6 million. committed for infrastructure improvements.

June 28, 2019: USM study on the economic impact of Amtrak passenger line to Mississippi.

Aug. 29, 2019: US DOT $4.9 million grant to cover “initial operating expenses” The grant will cover the first year of service and leverages about $1.4 million in commitments the states of Louisiana and Mississippi have made toward passenger rail.

Dec. 30, 2019: Mobile delays vote for the first time after the Federal Railroad Administration extended the deadline for applications in its Restoration and Enhancement (R&E) Grant program.

Jan. 21, 2020: Mobile City Council again delays a vote on a $3 million commitment to the Amtrak project.

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