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Amtrak service in Mobile could hinge on a vote tomorrow...An APR News Feature

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A critical vote on possibly restoring Amtrak rail service in Mobile is set for tomorrow. The idea of bringing passenger rail back to Alabama’s port city was dealt a blow last week. That’s when the finance committee of Mobile’s City Council raised concerns about supporting the plan. Mobile leaders will gather tomorrow to talk about the proposal.

There’s just one passenger line that passes through Alabama. It’s Alabama’s Amtrak’s Crescent that stops in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Anniston between New Orleans and New York. A decision tomorrow by the Mobile City Council may determine if the state gets a second line.

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"It’s extremely important, especially for not only economic development, but also connectivity along the coast," says Southern Rail Commission member Stephen McNair. He’s talking about plans by Amtrak and the SRC to run a daily train from Mobile to New Orleans. McNair says the route would be a major benefit for the state and region.

"This is a service that is not only going to increase tourism in Mobile, but it’s also going to increase connectivity to Pascagoula, Biloxi, New Orleans," says McNair. "And it’s going to be used not only by tourists, but also by private companies moving workers along the coast Monday through Friday."

But Mobile city leaders need to spend money to bring Amtrak back, and that’s an issue. City officials will decide whether to spend up to three million to help cover operating expenses for the first three years. In return, the federal government would agree to pay eighty percent of the operating costs in the first year. That support would drop to sixty percent in the second year, and down to forty percent in the third.

"My thoughts as an individual councilperson are that there’s a lot to be explained to me before I can support the resolution," says Mobile Councilman Joel Daves. He’s chairman of the city finance committee. One of his questions is how federal subsidies would hit taxpayers. 

“I think that it’s a significant financial commitment and just one point I make is by Amtrak’s own estimates the people riding the train would pay $1, while the taxpayers would pay $10 and I don’t see that as a good deal for the taxpayers of Mobile," says Daves. "And that leaves aside who’s going to pay for the train station, which is $3 million to $5 million and who’s going to pay for the upfront $2.2 million in infrastructure work, which is an estimate.” (JD)

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We don’t know what the impact is going to be on the freight traffic in the Port of Mobile, which is our primary economic engine," says Jimmy Lyons. He’s Director and CEO of the Port of Mobile.

“I’ll wait and see what the plan is, but I’m scared to death it’s going to hurt our business very badly," he says.”

The port runs its own railroad. It also uses trains from other lines, like CSX, to deliver most of the cargo shipped to and from the docks. Jimmy Lyons thinks the estimates for needed track improvements are too low.

“I understand some money is going to be spent on infrastructure enhancements. The numbers I have heard, I don’t think are near enough. I think they’re woefully understated," he says.

Members of the Southern Rail Commission say the proposed terminal site for the passenger train at Brookley would not bring Amtrak near downtown and the port.

“We have a great strong vibrant port that’s going to continue to grow. By operating a passenger rail, is it going to devastate it? In my opinion, it will not," says Wiley Blankenship. He’s chairman of the SRC. Blankenship says Amtrak has a history of working in port cities.

“They operate passenger rail in ports five times the size of our port and with much more freight congestion and they’re doing fine," he says.

Blankenship says that if the city agrees to continue the process, the costs to the city would be much less than the $3 million estimate. He said the subsidy would not be the 10-1 ratio presented to City Councilman Joel Daves.

“He’s basing it off of a ticket price of $18.33 with a ridership of 38,000, which we consistently expressed is a low fare rate and a low ridership number, so it’s not a 10 to 1," says Daves. "Yes, will it be subsidized to a degree? Yes it will be. I would like to add, so are your airports. We subsidize by paying for TSA, building airports, towers, anything to do with air travel is subsidized. Anything you do with an interstate highway is subsidized. Transportation is subsidized.”

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The SRC expects about 86,000 riders a year and fares would be closer to $30. Blakenship says initial estimates also did not include revenue from sources like advertising.

“There are a sundry of casinos within Mississippi that are going to want to advertise on that train," he says. "They’re going to want to buy tickets on that train for frequent users to their casinos, so there’s a lot of revenue that they’re not factoring in.”

In the end, the decision on a new passenger service for Alabama will be up to city and state officials, but without funding, the line will stop in Pascagoula. Again, Wiley Blankenship of the SRC.

“If they choose for some reason not to do this, that’s fine. You can still run the train but that subsidy that was being offered by the feds goes away and if you decide to do it six or eight months down the road, guess what, it’s going to cost you the full amount.”

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