How COVID-19 figures in to plans to restore Amtrak service in Mobile

May 21, 2020

An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.

Passenger trains haven’t run between Mobile and New Orleans for almost 15 years. Plans to restore service got a recent boost with the announcement of more than $5 million in funding. Let’s look at where things stand on the effort to bring a second Amtrak line back to Alabama, and how COVID-19 figures into it.

Plans for passenger rail service between Mobile and New Orleans are rolling ahead with the announcement this month. It’s a federal grant that will pay much of the train’s operating costs for the first three years. The next stop in the plan is getting the money for line improvements in Alabama. That leg of the trip has been slowed, but not derailed by COVID-19.

“What this does is really, we were projecting what it would be meaning that we would project that the grant would offset this, but now this is real,” said Wiley Blankenship who is the chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, the agency working to improve passenger train service in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

“This grant that we just received makes this real, meaning that it’s real money in there now and therefore, that’s all the city, at most would be out, so that’s good news, that’s really positive, so we’ve got that money,” he said.

The money comes from a federal Restoration and Enhancement Grant pushed by members of Congress in Mississippi and by Alabama Senator Richard Shelby. That money, and an earlier grant of over $4 million, will pay much of the Amtrak costs for the first three years. Blankenship said support from lawmakers and the public is moving the project forward.

“So far, we’re getting what we’ve asked for and been very pleased with that and I think this is just a testament to the elected officials at the federal level listening to their constituent base and that is, the people want this to happen and so they’re putting dollars in this program because they see it to be viable and what the people on the Gulf Coast want,” Blankenship said.

Credit Amtrak

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to pay the additional rail costs in those states. The Mobile City Council voted to pay to run the line into Alabama. The cost to Mobile ranges from year to year. The first year would be limited to 20 percent. City taxpayers would be billed no more than one point $4 million by the third year. Those estimates are based on a worst-case scenario for ridership. Blankenship said the Southern Rail Commission expects those costs to be lower.

“That is if only 38,400 people ride the train OK? Paying $18 a ticket, but we don’t believe that number in the sense of that’s all that’s going to ride the train,” Blankenship said. “We believe the number’s really going to be much higher than that, probably 50,000 or so.”

The next step will be to make rail improvements to get the train to Mobile. The SRC plans to ask Mobile County and the state for help with those costs. But, the COVID-19 outbreak has slowed those efforts. Blakenship says Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to pay the infrastructure costs to the west.

“So where does that leave us, well that leave us with infrastructure dollars needed and Alabama’s, believe it or not, is the smallest amount of all three states minimal versus all three states and so we’re looking for about $2.23 million, which, ironically, doesn’t have to be paid at one time,” he said. “That’s the good news. It could be spread over four years. We would like to make a formal ask to the county. This COVID thing has kind of put a hold on everything, but and I’m going to make a comment on that, COVID is kind of becoming an excuse for a lot of people as a reason not to act.”

Credit Pixabay

Southern Rail Commissioner Stephen McNair said federal and city support should help the SRC when they ask for state and county assistance.

“We’re still in talks with the state and the county, but obviously that’s been on hold, so we’re going to renew our conversations with the Mobile County Commission and the state about infrastructure costs,” McNair said. “With the commitment from the Mobile City Council and from the city of Mobile to help cover the operations, we’re in a good position, especially with this grant from the federal Department of Transportation.”

Mobile is working to build a new station for passenger trains. The old Amtrak station was near the foot of Government Street. Concerns about how a proposed station could affect traffic at the Alabama State Docks have planners looking for a new site. Brad Christensen is Mobile director of real estate asset management. He’s overseeing the project for the city.

“After numerous discussions with the Federal Railway and also the Southern Rail Commission, which actually our grant is through the Southern Rail Commission, it was kind of put on hold and we were directed to go out and look for alternate sites that would be acceptable to the community, politically and otherwise and we’re right now just in the early process of doing that. So really nothing has happened,” he said. “It’s kind of on hold is what it is.”

Credit Pixabay

One location usually mentioned is at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley. Christensen said they’re still waiting on word to start designs for a Brookley station.

“Brookley was one area that had been talked about and we’re obviously going to be looking at that, but right now, I’m still waiting on a proposal from our designer or to have them actually start looking into alternate sites, so we really haven’t even started that process and I don’t have approval for that so I can’t even tell you for definite that we’re looking definitely for alternate sites because I don’t have a contract in place for that so we’re really just in the middle I guess,” he said.

Even with delays, McNair says work is moving ahead and the line will be a benefit to the region.

“It’s put our conversations on hold with the state and the county, but the federal grant applications are still moving forward and we still expect the train to run on time in 2022,” he said.