Amtrak to span the Coast after Mobile votes to allow rail service

Amtrak to span the Coast after Mobile votes to allow rail service
Amtraks return to south Mississippi is now questionable. (Source: WLOX)

MOBILE, Ala. (WLOX) - Plans for a rail service that runs from New Orleans to Mobile with stops along the Mississippi Gulf Coast will proceed.

Mobile City Council met Tuesday to vote on the much-debated issue after tabling it last week for more discussion.

After hearing from multiple people who are concerned about the passenger rail service bringing more traffic to the city, more safety concerns, and more spending, the city council voted six-to-one to approve funds for the rail service.

“Sometimes I just think we need to take a chance... We are not obligated for three years," said councilmember John Williams. “I know we can work it out and I hope the Southern Rail Commission will find the funding to do what it is they say they are going to do... Let’s do something different.”

A lot of the talk centered around the benefits Amtrak could bring to the city in tourism dollars.

“We have a lot of money leaving this city going to the casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana and it’s time we keep some of that money in Alabama, in Mobile,” said councilmember C.J. Small.

“I look at this as an amenity for our citizens more than a tourist attraction but either way, it’s for our citizens so they can enjoy getting on the train and going to New Orleans or going to Mississippi,” said councilmember Gina Gregory. “I also do hope to see some tourists coming in... so that we can bring tourists into town to enjoy our little spot here on the Gulf Coast.”

“Who would pay to get on the Amtrak to come to Mobile?" questioned councilmember Frederick Richardson before answering his own question. "(People) would get on that train to come to Mardi Gras. They would get on that train to come to our ballgames. They would get on that train to come to the moon pie drop and they would get on that train to come to the cruise ships... We need every mode of transportation.”

“I believe in Mobile," said councilmember Levon Manzie, whose support of the rail line has long been public. “I don’t put Mobile down against any city in Mississippi...and that goes for New Orleans, as well. Just as people will get on the train to travel there, I believe they will get on the train to travel here.”

Councilmember Joel Daves was the only city council member to vote ‘no’ to the rail service.

“This is not a viable transportation alternative," said Daves. "This is a joy ride for the affluent... If you have a car, you’re going to take your car. It’s cheaper, more convenient, and quicker. If you don’t have a car, you’re going to take a bus. It’s a cheaper, more convenient, and quicker....This one doesn’t make sense. I oppose it.”

Mobile will be on the hook for $3 million paid in arrears over a three-year period. However, that obligation will only be required if the train runs. If the train doesn’t run, the City of Mobile will not spend any money.

The Southern Rail Commission also pointed out to the city council that there is a $3 million cap that will prevent any additional spending.

"This cannot become another situation where the city is holding the bag for something that was unintended, said the SRC representative. "It’s not possible with the way this grant was written.'

The Amtrak service is expected to begin in 2023. That’s the year passenger rail trips between New Orleans and Mobile are expected to begin. There will also be rail stops in both Pascagoula and Bay St. Louis.

The Mobile City Council voted to put up the money for the operations investment if the Southern Rail Commission is able to secure the additional funding needed for infrastructure investment from the state of Alabama and other partners.

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. Mississippi has allocated close to $18 million; Louisiana has allocated close to $10 million.

Amtrak hasn’t operated along the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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