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New Gulf Coast Amtrak route awaiting decision from Mobile officials

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(The Center Square) – The restoration of Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast is still planned, but city of Mobile officials are balking at the three-year, $3 million subsidy required by the service.

City officials have yet to approve operating and lease agreements with the passenger rail service that would commence twice-daily service connecting Mobile with New Orleans with stops on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The Mobile City Council’s Economic, Cultural & Civic Development Development Committee met on Tuesday to discuss the status of Amtrak in the Port City. The city needs a layover track for Amtrak trains and a platform for passengers.

The City Council approved $3 million in 2020, but that money would need to be reauthorized once the agreements are signed and three of the six council members who voted for the funding have been replaced.

Amtrak Vice President Grant Lang said during the meeting that the agreements are vital to securing a $178 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program grant, with $72 million of that to be spent in Alabama. He said without the agreements, the funding will not authorized.

Knox Ross, the Mississippi Commissioner from the Southern Rail Commission, told the committee that if the subsidies from the states and Mobile run out, the train stops.

In the latest status repor t filed with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board on May 1, Amtrak said they believed the agreements would be executed by early June. Lang said he feels the agreements will be executed in six weeks.

In November 2022, the parties involved in the bid to bring twice-daily service between Mobile and New Orleans reached a tentative agreement that satisfied the concerns of CSX, Norfolk Southern and the Port of Mobile. Mississippi has already committed about $15 million in state taxpayer money to the project, with Louisiana adding $10 million.

A hearing was held by the Surface Transportation Commission in February over the lack of progress, with commissioners incredulous about the numerous delays.

After the settlement was reached, the Southern Rail Commission and Amtrak applied for the $178 million CRISI grant to help improve trackage and other infrastructure needed to restore service to the coast. The two announced the award of the grant on Sept. 21.

Passenger rail service on the Gulf Coast has been a priority of the Southern Rail Commission, an Interstate Rail Compact created in 1982 by Congress and consisting of commissioners appointed by the governors of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Service ceased after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 amid declining ridership and damage to track infrastructure.

If service commences, trains will depart Mobile at 6:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and return to the Port City at 11:18 a.m. and 9:14 p.m. Lang said the final ticket price would be up to the states involved and that some short-distance rail services run by Amtrak, “which aren’t worried about the operating ratio” use low fares to get people off the roads.

According to the Amtrak 2015 feasibility study for restoration of Gulf Coast rail service, total trips declined 45.2% from 148,387 in fiscal 1993 to 81,348 in 2005. The study blamed reliability issues and delays with the trains, plus the loss of taxpayer funding from the three states.