Posts Tagged ‘Gulf Coast Working Group’

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.

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Budget Bill Gives Boost to Efforts to Restore Amtrak Service Along the

March 28, 2018

Gulf Coast proponents of restoring Amtrak service are looking toward a provision of the recently approved federal budget as a cause for optimism.

The $1.3 trillion omnibus bill contains $20 million for a grant program aimed at initiating, restoring or enhancing passenger rail service.

An aide to Florida Senator Bill Nelson said the program is competitive but was created with the Gulf Coast service in mind.

The Southern Rail Commission said the budget bill contained $592 million for the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program, which has $35.5 million to restore lost passenger service.

The Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group, a partnership between the Federal Railroad Administration, Southern Rail Commission and 28 cities, regional planning councils and state departments of transportation last July sent a report to Congress that urges creation of daily Amtrak service between New Orleans and Orlando.

The route was served by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited until that service was suspended following extensive damage to the route by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The report estimated the cost of service restoration at $115 million, but track owner CSX contends it would be $2 billion.

The working group has expressed doubt about the CSX figure but said it could not validate it without knowing the methodology behind the estimate.

Since the report was completed, CSX has offered for sale the track between Jacksonville and Pensacola, Florida, that Amtrak once used.

Knox Ross, vice chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, is optimistic that if CSX sells the track that could boost efforts to restore passenger service to the Florida panhandle.

“(State and federal regulators) could make the passenger train a condition of sale,” Ross said. “That they have to maintain the line to at least current standard, and that they have to allow the (passenger) train.”

The Southern Rail Commission is also seeking twice-daily rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

“We’ve got a short-term opportunity to get something done,” he said.

One stumbling block to service restoration could be the lack of positive train control on the line between Pensacola to Orlando.

Capitol Costs for Gulf Coast Service Put at $177.6M

July 19, 2017

The price of restoring rail passenger service to the Gulf Coast is $177.6 million in capital improvements, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The FRA made that assessment in a report sent to Congress this week that is the final version of the Gulf Coast Working Group’s report for reinstating Amtrak service east of New Orleans.

However, CSX, which would host the service, disputes the report, saying that a consultant’s study put required capital improvements at $2.2 billion.

That prompted the the Southern Rail Commission to say that CSX has, “demonstrated a commitment to obfuscation and deceit, which culminated the sentiments they expressed in (the Working Group’s) May 10, 2017, meeting.”

The FRA said it considered information from Working Group participants, which included representatives of CSX, Amtrak, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the Southern Rail Commission, to come up with the $117.6-million figure for capital improvements.

In its report, the FRA said it “does not endorse every recommendation” made in the report. FRA staff participated in the working group activities.

The Southern Rail Commission has received funding for some station restoration, but the report said $5.48 million of additional annual funding is necessary to operate a daily New Orleans-Orlando, Florida, extension of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans.

Operating a separate service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, would add another $4 million cost.

The report did not specify the cost for positive train control installation.

The Gulf Coast has been without rail service since the Sunset Limited was suspended east of New Orleans following damage to the route inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

CSX Disputes SRC Comments on Gulf Coast Service

June 21, 2017

CSX has taken issue with comments made by a member of the Southern Rail Commission that it has increased the amount of money needed for capital improvements to restore Amtrak service to the Gulf Coast.

Commission member Jerry Gehman said that since E. Hunter Harrison became CEO of the railroad that it has demanded a $2.3 billion investment to restore passenger service east of New Orleans.

Gehman contended that the railroad had agreed to a lower sum in negotiations held before Harrison became CEO.

“The truth is that, according to a study that the Federal Railroad Administration co-sponsored in 2016, a minimum investment of more than $2 billion is required to create the infrastructure needed to safely support the desired service, and even at that level of spending it may not be possible to meet customers’ expectations and federal laws that require minimum on-time performance by passenger service,” CSX said in a statement.

The statement said the figure was arrived at by the engineering consulting firm of HDR Inc. working with the FRA and CSX to analyze what it would take to initiate Amtrak service between New Orleans and Sanford, Florida.

CSX said that the cost included additional track, signals, bridges and other improvements, including meeting new federal laws requiring positive train control and on-time performance.

“Those facts have been available to the Gulf Coast Working Group since August 2016, and have been consistently communicated and discussed in letters and monthly meetings with the FRA and other stakeholders since then,” CSX said. “At no time has CSX reached any agreement with the Gulf Coast Working Group about the cost at which new or modified service could be provided, so assertions that CSX recently changed its position are inaccurate.”

In its statement, CSX contended that even with a $2 billion investment, computer models suggest that passenger trains operating on the Gulf Coast route would not be able to achieve federally mandated on-time performance standards

“Without the much-needed additional tracks and other capacity improvements and due in part to the fact that the route includes 17 drawbridges where maritime traffic has priority over rail traffic, the new service would not meet customer expectations nor federal regulations,” CSX said. “Failing to meet that standard would expose CSX to uncapped penalties and unhappy passengers; CSX, as a responsible public company, is unwilling to support the initiation of a service that is impossible to provide in compliance with federal law.”