Posts Tagged ‘Alabama’

Mobile City County to Vote on Funding Amtrak Route

December 21, 2019

The city council of Mobile, Alabama, is expected to vote on Dec. 31 on a proposal to help fund the restoration of Amtrak service to the city from New Orleans.

The city funding would be between $2 million and $3 million for three years.

The federal government has awarded a grant to help pay for the route’s operating expenses. The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to chip in funding but Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has thus far refused to approve that state’s estimated $2.2 million funding share.

If Mobile approves funding for the route, the money would not be paid until 2023 when the service is expected to begin.

City Council President Levon Manzie said that it is “untenable” that Mobile could not be included on the route. “We need to be a part of this service,” he said.

Ivey and Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons have opposed the service on the grounds that it could potentially interfere with traffic at the Port of Mobile.

Mobile Council Calls for More Study on Amtrak Service

July 11, 2019

The city council in Mobile, Alabama, has approved a resolution seeking a study of the return of Amtrak service to the city.

The resolution was approved four days ahead of a Southern Rail Commission briefing on the proposed service to Mobile.

However, the resolution that the council approved was a scaled back version of what had been originally introduced on June 25.

That resolution requested that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey “commit and insure” the allocation of funds necessary to bring Amtrak back to Mobile.

This week the council simply asked “responsible state, county and city officials” to “examine the feasibility of a return of passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast.”

The vote in favor of the resolution was 6-0 with one council member absent.

“I view this as a positive,” said Wiley Blankenship, president/CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership, and member of the SRC.

“It’s good to see that everyone is clicking in harmony and is on the same page,” he said.

A council member who has raised concerns about the service said he supported the resolution because more information is needed.

“The consensus of the council as a whole is that it’s a very interesting idea with some positive aspects to it,” said councilman Joel Daves. “But we need to gather more information about it before we can come out with an iron clad endorsement.”

Two council members, though, have expressed support for the return of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast.

Blankenship said one purpose of the July 12 briefing will be to dispel some myths and misinformation about the proposed service between Mobile and New Orleans.

Amtrak served the route with the tri-weekly Sunset Limited until August 2005 when the train was suspended east of New Orleans due to damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

One example of that would be the fares Amtrak would charge.

Daves has said a ticket could cost $180 roundtrip, but the SRC said the fares are more likely be to between $25 to $45 one way.

The site of the station in Mobile might also be addressed in the briefing after Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson expressed concern that trains could block access to the city-owned cruise terminal.

“They can take the train station and keep on rolling it to Brookley Field,” he said, referring to a business park and Downtown Mobile Airport located about three miles southeast of downtown Mobile. “You don’t have to stop it downtown and disrupt anything. Just build it at Brookley.”

SRC Mulls Options for Gulf Coast Service

July 7, 2018

Southern Rail Commission members are considering their options now that state funding matches needed to restore Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast have been turned down by governors of two states.

SRC officials say they are not giving up on reinstating service that was suspended in August 2005 in the aftermath of the devastation brought by Hurrican Katrina.

“We missed out on this money — and that’s disappointing,” said Knox Ross, the SRC’s secretary-treasurer. “But we’re hoping there is a path forward to take advantage of the next grant period.”

One potential bright spot is that Mississippi’s Transportation Commission, which is independent from the state’s executive branch, has committed to use more than $4 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality operating funds should necessary capital investments be secured for rail service.

SRC members have met with Amtrak officials, including CEO Richard Anderson and Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Gardner.

Ross said he has spoken with Amtrak officials “who are extremely committed to make this happen.”

One option might be restoration of service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, which Amtrak operated in the 1980s as the Gulf Coast Limited and in the middle 1990s.

Those trains were funded by the states involved, but ended after state support was withdrawn.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimson and the area’s county commissioners have signed letters of support to revive rail service and are working with the Port of Mobile on congestion mitigation issues.

Aside from lack of financial support from the governors of Mississippi and Alabama, the SRC faces the matter of  host railroad CSX and Federal Railroad Administration disagreement about which of the railroad’s demanded track capacity improvement demands need to be satisfied before one or two New Orleans-Mobile daily round trips can be inaugurated.

Ivey Boots Outspoken Member of SRC

June 30, 2018

Not only did Alabama Governor Kay Ivey reject state funding to reinstate Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast region, she also removed one of the state’s representative to the Southern Rail Commission.

Jerry Gehman, who had been appointed to the SRC in 2016 by former Governor Robert Bentley, had strongly supported the rail expansion.

His removal from the board is immediate, Ivey wrote in a letter to SRC Chairman John Spain.

Gehman said he wasn’t given a reason for his termination from the SRC, but it came a week after he strongly urged the governor to support the state’s providing $5.3 million for the rail expansion.

He told reporters in Alabama that he wasn’t surprised that Ivey had removed him. “There is no regret. I leave 100-percent or 110-percent of my energy and effort at the table. I’ve done everything I can for the people of Alabama,” Gehman said.

Gehman said he will continue to lobby for restoring Amtrak service to Mobile, Alabama.

“I’m going to speak out for it,” he said. “I hate for the Southern Rail Commission that this occurred, but from that perspective, I’m proud of the fact at least as an American that we can stand up and say here is an option like it or not we have a certain limited time. Now all Alabamians, I trust, know that there was an option on the table.”

However, Gehman said that given the tenor of Ivey’s comments in rejecting the state contribution to reviving Amtrak service, he is not optimistic that it will happen during her term.

In a statement issued at the time that Ivey rejected the funding, she said the service would result in some economic benefit, but reviving Amtrak “will have an outsized detrimental impact on other types of rail service.”

Gehman noted that neither Ivey nor anyone in her administration has consulted with the SRC about how to attract Amtrak service.

Ivey is running for reelection this year and her Democratic opponent, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, has been outspoken in his support for helping to fund an Amtrak service revival.

The revival of Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast suffered another setback when Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant also declined to support state funding of the service revival.

Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana collectively would have needed to provide $35 million in state funding for the service to match federal funds set aside for the project in the federal budget approved last spring.

Gehman also told reporters that Bryant had been involved with the SRC and had shown interest in the SRC’s work.

However, another Alabama representative to the SRC, Wiley Blankenship, said members of Ivey’s staff had met with the SRC numerous times.

“They’ve been more than accommodating and more than open to meet with us and talk with us,” Blankenship said. “I hope that the governor does not view statements by one commissioner to reflect on the whole.”

The SRC has 21 members, five of which are appointed by the governor of Alabama.

Although Gehman’s term didn’t expire until 2020, the terms of the four other Alabama representatives expire on July 31.

“The governor plans to review all of the appointments before making a decision,” said Ivey spokesman Daniel Sparkman when asked if any of the state’s SRC members would be reappointed.

Regardless of what Ivey decides, Alabama representative Claire Austin won’t be returning because she is a registered lobbyist and Ivey signed an order last year barring registered lobbyists from serving in executive branch positions.

Gulf Coast Revival Misses Funding Deadline

June 23, 2018

Efforts to revive Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast suffered a setback this week when the Southern Rail Commission cited lack of financial commitments from the states to be served for missing a funding deadline.

The SRC lacked the financial commitments needed to qualify for a Federal Railroad Administration Consolidated Rail Infrastructure Safety and Improvements grant. The states of Mississippi and Alabama declined to provide funding.

The grant program was created with a push from U.S. Senator Roger Wicker and former Senator Thad Cochrane, both of Mississippi.

To win the grant funds, the SRC needed matching funds of $35.5 million from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards pledged $9.5 million but governors in Mississippi and Alabama didn’t follow suit.

In a statement, Alabama Governor Ivey said: “I am hopeful that one day we may have the luxury of providing financial support for passenger rail service, but now is not the time when we have other challenges which must take priority.”

If Alabama and Mississippi are willing to provide funding, the SRC said it could still seek the federal funding in fiscal year 2018.

“I know I speak for my fellow commissioners when I say I’m very disappointed to not take advantage of this funding for which Gulf Coast passenger rail is so perfectly suited,” said SRC Chairman John Spain.

Amtrak served the Gulf Coast with its tri-weekly Sunset Limited between Orlando, Florida, and Los Angeles until the service was suspended in August 2005 in the aftermath of damage the track and station infrastructure caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Alabama Gov. Silent on Rail Funding Match

June 18, 2018

The efforts to resume Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, are awaiting word from Gov. Kay Ivey as to whether she supports those efforts.

The project faces a deadline on Thursday for the state to make a funding pledge of $5.35 million as Alabama’s share of the funding.

Resuming intercity rail service along the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans has been a priority of the Southern Rail Commission for the past several years.

Eventually, the Commission wants to see the service extended to Orlando, Florida.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited served the route until August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina caused several damage to the route’s infrastructure, including the existing Amtrak stations.

Federal funds are expected to pay for most the service restoration, but states along the route must match that funding.

The governors of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to providing funding, Ivey has refused to meet with the Commission or to say if she supports or opposes the state match.

If Alabama declines to providing funding, the train will operate no further east than Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Alabama Gov. Lobbied on Gulf Coast Restoration Funding

April 17, 2018

Southern rail passenger advocates are trying to prod Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey into supporting a proposal to seek federal grants to be used to restore Amtrak service east of New Orleans that was halted in 2005 due to damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Alabama’s match for the federal funds would be $3.5 million, although that could rise to $8.5 million if service is to be restored at Atmore, Alabama, which was one of two cities in the state served by the Sunset Limited before it was discontinued along the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina.

The Southern Rail Commission has said Alabama’s share would be spread over four years.

There is a sense of urgency to win the governor’s approval because deadlines for the two federal grant programs are in May and June.

“There are grants available right now that Alabama can take advantage of,” said Wiley Blankenship, CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership who serves as the representative of Mobile, Alabama, on the SRC, a 21-member group formed in 1982 to advocate for passenger rail service and pursue funding opportunities for expanded rail passenger service in the South.

Another proposal is to reinstate Amtrak service between Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama, which operated between 1989 and 1995.

That service, known as the Gulf Breeze, was a section of the Crescent, which operates between New York and New Orleans.

The Ivey administration is expected to receive updates on the grant proposals in the coming weeks.

At one time the Sunset Limited ran between Los Angeles and Miami. However, its route had been trimmed to Orlando, Florida, by 2005.

Greg White, SRC vice chairman and a resident of Andalusia, Alabama, expressed optimism that the Commission can bring Ivey’s office “up-to-speed” on the need to move forward.

“We’ve been in transition from one governor to the next and we are finding ourselves in the middle now of a primary campaign,” said White, adding that SRC officials have already met with two cabinet members.

The SRC has noted that the recent federal omnibus budget approved by Congress contains money for two grant programs, one of which was created to restore lost passenger rail service.

The language of the program is such that the SRC believes the Gulf Coast route is the only one eligible for the full $35.5 million appropriation.

Another program has $20 million to support operational expenses for new passenger rail service.

One sticking point in restoring Gulf Coast service is the cost of rebuilding infrastructure destroyed or damaged by Katrina.

CSX, which owns most of the route the train would use, has said rebuilding the line for passenger train use would cost $2.3 billion.

The Gulf Coast Working Group, created by Congress in 2015 to study restoring the service, has put the cost at $117.7 million.

The SRC has been critical of the CSX estimate, calling its demands unreasonable. CSX said much of the cost would involve rehabilitating 17 drawbridges between New Orleans and Orlando.

Without that, the railroad said, it would be a near impossibility to run passenger trains on the line under present conditions that fulfill on-time expectations.

Mobile Moving Ahead With Station Plans

April 17, 2018

Although it not a certainty that Amtrak service east of New Orleans will be restored, officials in Mobile, Alabama, are pressing ahead with plans to build a new train station.

The city received a $139,500 federal grant in 2016 to be used toward establishing the station.

Officials have discussed putting it downtown near Cooper Riverside Park, the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center and the GulfQuest maritime museum.

The city recently issues a request for qualifications for consultants to provide planning and architectural design work for the station. Applications are due by April 20.

Not everyone in Mobile is on board with the idea of restoring Amtrak service that was lost in August 2005 after Hurricane Katrina damaged the route of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans.

Jimmy Lyons, head of the Alabama State Port Authority doubts that getting Amtrak back will benefit the city that much.

Instead, he argues that it will encourage more people to leave Mobile to visit New Orleans and Mississippi casinos rather than drawing visitors from elsewhere to Mobile.

“People aren’t going to get on a train and ride to Mobile when you have the museums, zoos and aquariums in New Orleans,” he said. “The residents of New Orleans, when they come to Alabama, they go to the beach. Taking the train isn’t a good option of going to the beach. We would lose business here. I don’t see it as a real win for Mobile.”

Lyons is also worried that a passenger train would interfere with CSX freight service to the port of Mobile.

“We are highly dependent on that CSX rail line that runs through the port and underneath the Convention Center,” Lyons said. “We run, at a minimum, seven-eight trains a day over that line. On heavy days, when we have a lot of coal traffic, we could be up to 12-15 times.”

Lyons’ point of view is at odds with that of the Southern Rail Commission, which is pressing states on the route of the train to provide funding to match federal grant money that is available in the current federal budget for restoration of intercity passenger rail service where it has been lost.

Crescent Stations to Receive Upgrades

December 20, 2016

The Southern Rail Commission said on Monday that three Alabama cities will receive funding to upgrade their Amtrak stations. All are served by the New York-New Orleans Crescent.

Amtrak 4The Commission said the grants are part of $2.4 million in federal funds to be spent for station upgrades in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The grants include $139,500 for Anniston, $150,000 for Birmingham and $314,457 for Tuscaloosa.

In Anniston, city officials say they will use their grant to extend the platform by 400 feet, to allow Nos. 19 and 20 to load and unload baggage and bicycles.

City manager Kent Davis noted that the Chief Ladiga Trail has been extended into Anniston and cycling signs have been placed on city streets.

The city also has going a project to build a new trailhead and parking lot serving Coldwater Mountain Bike Trail.

“If we make Amtrak more bike friendly as well, it could bring in more cyclists,” Davis said.

The lengthened platform is expected to eliminate the need for double stopping.

The city is in talks with Norfolk Southern, which owns the property on which the platform extension will be installed.