Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak Gulf Coast service’

FRA Awards Grants for Passenger Rail Projects

May 7, 2020

The Federal Railroad Administration announced this week that it has awarded more than $22 million in grant funding to three passenger-rail projects affecting eight states.

The money from the Restoration and Enhancement Grant Program is aimed at projects to “initiate, restore or enhance intercity passenger-rail service around the country,” FRA officials said in a news release release.

The grants will help fund a possible expansion of Amtrak service between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, a possible restoration of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast and improving CTrail Service in Connecticut.

The Southern Rail Commission received $5.45 million to be used to implement Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation received $12,569,200 toward the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago Intercity Passenger-Rail Service Project.

The project calls for adding a second daily roundtrip train between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota, to supplement Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

The additional train would provide more convenient travel times and serve 12 stations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation received $4,395,616 for the CTrail-Hartford Line Rail Enhancement Project.

That project envisions two additional weekday trains between New Haven, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts.

The additional service will allow for more connections with MTA Metro-North Railroad and Amtrak trains.

Funding Quest Continues in Alabama

February 14, 2020

The fight for local funding in Alabama to help pay for a proposed new Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, is far from over.

Proponents of the service are now asking the Mobile County Commission to also commit to providing funding.

Two of the three commissioners told local reporters this week that they think it is too early for the commission to decide on providing funding.

Commissioners Merceria Ludgood and Connie Hudson said there has been no “formal” presentation or request of the commission although a third commissioner, Jerry Carl, supports the service and said he expects the county will potentially spending up to $3 million over a three-year period to support the construction of a new train station or platform.

“Our original conversation was for the county to come up with $1 million a year for three years,” Carl said. “That would build a train station and would be the maximum we could put into it. But we are waiting on (passenger rail advocates) to figure out their numbers. We’ll have our legal team talking to the city to make sure they OK with it. Nothing is guaranteed on (the project) until we see final numbers.”

Wiley Blankenship, an Alabama member of the Southern Rail Commission said his group will be approaching the commission sooner rather than later.

The Commission has been leading the efforts to return Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast.

The region has been without rail passenger service since the Sunset Limited was suspended in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

“We don’t want to ask (for county assistance) until they are fully educated (on the issue) and that we give them all the information so they can evaluate it and so they can make the best decision for the taxpayers,” Blankenship said. “We’re planning on doing that over the next few weeks.”

Last week the Mobile City County approved a resolution committing the city to spending $3 million over three years to help pay for the service, which is projected to get started in 2023.

However, that financial commitment is contingent on other governmental or private entities agreeing to spend up to $2.2 million on capital improvements for the route.

That might involve having to get state funding for capital improvements, which might be a uncertain proposition given that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey last year declined to support state funding for the service.

The capital improvement needs are expected to be spelled out in a study now being undertaken of how Amtrak service would affect host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern.

That study is expected to be finished this summer.

“Depending on what comes out of the study, I think the state will step in and it will be determined what role the state and county will play in terms of infrastructure,” Hudson said.

The Ivey administration said last week it is waiting to see where the county commission stands on the project.

Capital improvements for the New Orleans-Mobile route have already been projected at $5.786 million of which $2.89 million will come from a $33 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration, and $671,000 from Amtrak.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi along with the online Mississippi cities of Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis have agreed to providing funding for the route.

Mobile Council to Vote on Amtrak Funding on Feb. 4

February 3, 2020

The Mobile City County last week delayed yet again a vote on a proposed to spend $3 million in city funds to help pay for Amtrak service between Mobile and New Orleans.

However, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the day after the latest delay that he expected the council to “get to yes” when it votes on Feb. 4 on the proposal.

Five of the seven Mobile council members must vote in favor of a resolution on the funding in order for it to pass.

Stimpson has said he wants assurances that the service would not affect CSX freight traffic to the Port of Mobile.

“We’re looking for a confirmation, a pathway forward so that we don’t get surprised because really, as steward of the taxpayer dollars, it’s imperative that we do our homework to make sure that we get this piece right,” he said.

The Southern Rail Commission is leading the effort to get Amtrak service reinstated to the Gulf Coast region.

A federal grant will pay some of the costs of the service with the states of Mississippi and Louisiana already having agreed to provide matching funds.

However, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey had thus far refused to commit funding from Alabama, which has meant that getting funding from Mobile might be crucial for the project to move ahead.

The Gulf Coast region has been without intercity rail passenger since Amtrak’s Sunset Limited was suspended in August 2005 in the wake of damage to its route east of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

Supporters of the Mobile-New Orleans route, which would operate twice daily, have argued that it will bring tourist dollars and tax revenue.

Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons has raised concerns about freight trains sharing the same tracks as passenger trains.

Stimpson said an expected study on the impact on freight traffic would “take a lot of the ambiguity” out of the debate even though that study will not be completed before the city council votes this week.

“I’m 100 percent sure we’ll have to make a decision without the benefit of that study,” Stimpson said. “It’s gonna be based on us getting more comfortable with where we are.”

Stimpson, however, rejected concerns raised by some opponents that the service would result in an unacceptably high level of taxpayer subsidy of service that is not expected to generate enough in ticket revenue to pay for its operating costs.

Stimpson said there is “no real way to know” what the long-term cost to the city would be.

“I think it’s probably close enough to take that risk,” he said.

He said he believes the benefits of having rail passenger service are more than the increased tax dollars the city would see from tourist traffic.

It would also be a “sales point” for the city because “not every city can say that,” he said. “And not every city has Amtrak, and a downtown airport like we hope to have one day.”

In advance of the vote in Mobile some Mississippi cities that would be stops for the trains are leaning the Mobile City Council to approve funding.

Officials in Biloxi, Pascagoula, and Bay St. Louis are trying Mobile to get onboard in funding the service.

A combination of city, county, and state governments in Mississippi and Louisiana have made financial commitments for the service.

“We think it’s vitally important Mobile votes for it,” said Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel. “It creates that synergy from New Orleans to Mobile. It would create a unity for the cities along the Gulf Coast.”

Opposition Continues to Funding of New Amtrak Route

January 25, 2020

Opposition continues to surround a proposal in Mobile, Alabama, for city funding of a proposed new Amtrak route linking the city with New Orleans.

The Mobile City Council is expected to vote on Jan. 28 on a resolution to endorse committing financial support toward the restoration of a route that last saw passenger service in August 2005 when the Sunset Limited was suspended in the wake damage to the route by Hurricane Katrina.

A three-member council finance committee declined to recommend voting in favor of the funding with some members saying that ticket revenue would not cover the costs of operating the trains.

Five council members must vote to approve the funding resolution in order for it to pass.

Mobile has proposed spending up to $3 million over a three-year period to help underwrite the Mobile-New Orleans service, which is expected to be two roundtrips a day.

State and local governments in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are facing a Feb. 5 deadline to approve matching funds for a Federal Railroad Administration grant that was announced earlier.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have approved their share of the funding and Amtrak has agreed to provide $6 million for capital projects needed to get the route started.

But Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey balked last year at approving that state’s share of the funding.

Ivey and some connected with the Port of Mobile have expressed reservations about the passenger service for fear that it would interfere with CSX freight service to the port.

The Rail Passengers Association said that Mobile’s $3 million commitment is crucial to bringing the service to fruition.

RPA said if Mobile votes against the funding, it would endanger the project.

Mobile Delays Action on Funding Amtrak Route

January 2, 2020

The city county in Mobile, Alabama, has delayed until Jan. 28 a vote on funding for Amtrak service.

The council had been set to vote on contributing city funding to a new New Orleans to Mobile route on Dec. 31, but delayed the action after learning that the deadline to commit the funding has been extended.

The deadline had been Jan. 6 but has been extended to Feb. 5. Most of the funding for the service is expected to come from a federal grant, but the states of Louisiana and Mississippi have also agreed to provide matching funds.

Alabama, though, has balked at providing funding. State funding would be independent of any funding provided by Mobile.

Mobile is considering providing between $2 million and $3 million to help pay for the operating expenses of the route for its first three years.

Wiley Blankenship, an Alabama commissioner to the Southern Rail Commission, told council members in an email that an additional $1.9 million has been added to the federal Restoration and Enhancement Grant program to bring the total amount available to $26.3 million.

He said the grant funds are competitive and Gulf Coast rail service is not the only regional-based Amtrak service seeking funding.

Blankenship said at least two services on the East Coast have expressed interest and meet qualifications for the program.

Some Alabama public officials have expressed concerns about how implementation of Amtrak service would affect rail freight operations at the Port of Mobile.

A study of the effect of Amtrak operations on CSX freight service on the route is expected to be completed in about six months.

Blankenship said the SRC may approach the state of Alabama about providing funding for capital improvements to the tracks to be used by Amtrak.

He also said an Amtrak official is expected to attend a Mobile City Council meeting in January to answer questions.

Mobile Resolution To Come With Contingencies

December 24, 2019

The resolution that the city council of Mobile, Alabama, is expected to consider on Dec. 31 contains a clause that would revoke the city’s financial support of a proposed expansion of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast if certain issues are to arise.

The city will consider committing $3 million toward the operating cost of the service, which is envisioned to begin in 2023 between New Orleans and Mobile.

The action comes as local and state governments along the proposed route face a Jan. 6 deadline to commit matching funds to a federal grant awarded earlier this year to get the service started.

The states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to contribute their share of the funding but Alabama has balked.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has raised concerns that the Amtrak route would adversely affect rail operations at the Port of Mobile.

Mobile city council members will vote on a letter of intent, but one council member has asked what happens after the first three years of the city’s commitment to fund operations of the route.

Other questions that have arisen include the cost of building a station in Mobile and how infrastructure improvements from the Mississippi border to Mobile will be handled.

Most of the operating costs of the route are expected to be paid for by a federal Restoration and Enhancement grant.

The concerns of Gov. Ivey have also been echoed by Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons.

Wiley Blankenship, president and CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership and a member of the Southern Rail Commission  said the location of the Mobile station at the Brookley Aeroplex, instead of downtown would harm commercial activity at the port.

“The Port is a priority for me above passenger rail, ”he said. “If I felt that operating the train at Brookley would jeopardize the Port, I would not be standing here today. I would ask the governor to remove me from the office, and that I cannot serve.”

Mississippi City Seeks Grant to Renovate Train Station

December 14, 2019

The city council of a Mississippi city located on a proposed Amtrak Gulf Coast route is seeking funding to renovate its history passenger train station.

The council of Bay Saint Louis is seeking the help of State Senator Philip Moran to obtain $1.6 million from the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund that would be used to upgrade the facility.

The grant application notes that the station needs waterproofing, improved parking and changes to make it conform with ADA accessibility standards.

The depot is a registered landmark in Mississippi and houses the Hancock County Tourism, Bay Saint Louis Mardi Gras Museum, and Alice Moseley Folk Art Museum.

The Southern Rail Commission has been working to revive Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The trains are expected to stop in Bay Saint Louis. The Gulf Coast region has been off the Amtrak map since August 2005 when Amtrak suspended operation of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans following widespread damage to the route caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Gulf Coast Rail Supporters Watching Ala. Governor

September 11, 2019

The prospects for a New Orleans-Mobile, Alabama, rail passenger route have been looking brighter of late, but it is not yet a sure thing.

Some in Alabama fear that tension between Gov. Kay Ivey and Mobile officials who recently thwarted a highway project the governor favored could hinder the chances that the state will pay for its share of the costs of the route.

Ivey hasn’t come out against funding the rail route, but she did decline earlier to commit Alabama to helping fund it.

That came following commitments from Louisiana and Mississippi to contribute a combined $1.4 million in funding.

More recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it will award $4.36 million in Restoration and Enhancement funds toward the financing of the first year of operations of a new “state-supported” Mobile-to-New Orleans route.

Another $33 million federal grant was awarded through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program to help pay for rail infrastructure improvements needed for passenger rail service restoration.

Mississippi has already dedicated $15 million and Louisiana has committed up to $10 million to match the $33 million CRISI grant that was awarded in June. Amtrak is spending $6 million.

Until Hurricane Katrina damaged the rail line between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, in August 2005, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited operated tri-weekly along the Gulf Coast via Mobile.

CSX rebuilt the route used by Amtrak Nos. 1 and 2, but passenger serviced has remained suspended.

Pushing for the return of Amtrak to the Gulf Coast has been the Southern Rail Commission, which has representatives of all of the states along the route.

“We are hopeful that we might be able to see something happen on the Alabama side of things in the very near future so we can participate,” said Wiley Blankenship, president and CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership, and an Alabama representative to the SRC.

In the wake of the most recently federal funding announcement, Ivey remained noncommittal about supporting it.

“We are continuing to look into the Southern Rail Commission and others to help answer some vitally important questions such as what would be the long-term costs/benefits if passenger rail service returns to the Gulf Coast?” she said.

The statement also raised questions about the financial costs to the City of Mobile, Mobile County and the state once the federal grant is exhausted.

Underlying the issue is the fear of some Alabama legislators and policy makers that Ivey might oppose helping fund the resumption of Amtrak service in retaliation for the collapse of plans to build a $2.1 billion bridge on Interstate 10 in Mobile.

The bridge triggered widespread opposition because it would be financed by a $6 one way toll for more than 50 years.

Despite Ivey’s opposition, the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization voted to remove the I-10 project from its short-term plans, which therefore prevents the Alabama Department of Transportation from seeking federal money for the project.

Ivey had asked the project be kept on the short-term list of projects so that the state could find “reasonable” alternatives to fund the bride other than with tolls.

Rail advocates may have found a new supporter in state auditor Jim Zeigler, who led the opposition to the tolls and called for his supporters to “keep an eye on the Amtrak Mobile issue.”

“Whether or not we’ll get involved as an advocate for or against it, we don’t know yet. We’ll be watching for that and we’ll use our Facebook group to try and guard against retaliations.”

Support from Alabama lawmakers for reviving Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast has long been tepid.

The loudest voices backing the revival have been Mississippi U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.

One prominent voice against bringing back Amtrak has been Jimmy Lyons, CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority.

He has repeatedly said he fears bringing back Amtrak will interfere with rail freight traffic to the Port of Mobile.

Supporters of the train argue that Lyons’ concerns are overstated while Lyons counters that the economic benefits of the rail service are not what they are made out to be.

In a best case scenario, the SRC figures it will be two years before the New Orleans-Mobile route is up and running.

Plans call for two roundtrips per day between the two cities.

Intermediate stops would be made in Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis with a running time of 3 hours, 23 minutes.

U.S. DOT Awards Grant for Gulf Coast Service

August 31, 2019

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday announced that it will award a $4.36 million grant to the Southern Rail Commission to help restore intercity rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The service, expected to be two round trips per day, will use tracks formerly served by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited until August 2005 when it was suspended in the wake of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The grant is being made through the federal Restoration and Enhancement program and is intended to help pay operating expenses for the first year of service.

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi have committed $1.4 million toward the service while another $33 million federal grant award to get the service started was awarded through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program for infrastructure and capital improvements.

However, Alabama officials have yet to agree to provide any funding for the service.

SRC officials said they hope Alabama state officials will support the passenger rail restoration by providing matching funds during the next grant cycle.

“I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners and Alabama state leadership to provide the necessary support to leverage additional federal operating funds to make Gulf Coast Rail a reality,” said Wiley Blankenship, an SRC member from Alabama.

Another stumbling block that must be overcome is reaching an agreement with host railroad CSX on the infrastructure work that is needed before passenger trains can resume using the route.

Likewise, an operating agreement with CSX also needs to be negotiated.

NOLA-Mobile Service Outlined at Presentation

July 17, 2019

Members of the Southern Rail Commission last week told public officials in Mobile, Alabama, that the proposed new Amtrak Gulf Coast service they want to see happen will not be the same as the service they once had.

Gulf Coast cities east of New Orleans have been without intercity rail passenger service since Hurricane Katrina damaged the route in August 2005 and Amtrak suspended operation of the Sunset Limited there.

The proposed service between New Orleans and Mobile will not disrupt operations of the ports in Mobile, they said during an information session.

The SRC officials said the route could become a passenger rail success story similar to that of how Maine’s Downeaster, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawathas, or Northeast Regional service sponsored by Virginia.

In all three of those corridors, SRC officials said, fares are reasonably priced.

The proposed 160-mile New Orleans-Mobile corridor would have morning and evening service.

It won’t be the Sunset Limited, a long-distance train that ran between Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida, just three days a week and often operated behind schedule.

Also appearing at the information session were representatives of Transportation for America, Amtrak, and the Rail Passengers Association.

The sticking point in launching the service is money. The proposal won a $33 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grant and the states of Louisiana and Mississippi have agreed to fund their shares of the cost of the service.

But earlier this year Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey rejected committing funding. She cited concerns about passenger trains interfering with port operations.

The latter concerns have also been expressed by some Mobile officials.

Alabama would need to pay $2.2 million for infrastructure improvements and $3.04 million for operating support.

Proponents of the proposed service contend that the service would generate more than $40 million in economic benefits.

Another hurdle facing the service is the need for Amtrak and CSX to negotiate an operating contract.

Infrastructure needs include construction of a 600-foot platform at the Mobile station, and a 1,325-foot storage track for trains to sit between runs.