Posts Tagged ‘Southern Rail Commission’

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Those trains were funded by the states involved, but ended after state support was withdrawn.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

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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.

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.

CSX Route Sale Could Affect Service Restoration

March 19, 2018

CSX has offered for sale a portion of the route once used in Florida by the Sunset Limited.

Passenger train advocates are concerned that this might affect their efforts to reduce rail passenger service between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida.

The track in question is a 300-mile segment between Jacksonville and Pensacola.

The Southern Rail Commission is lobbying government regulators to consider the inclusion of passenger rail as an aspect of the sale.

If they are able to do that, it could overcome one hurdle to reinstating Amtrak service that was suspended in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina damaged the route.

CSX has opposed resisted allowing Amtrak to use the route.

“There will be regulatory processes that govern the sale of this line,” said Knox Ross, the vice chairman SRC and former mayor of Pelahatchie, Mississippi. “We want to make sure that the regulators understand we want to bring the train back and that that be considered as part of any sale.”

Group Studies Southern Rail Route

September 7, 2017

A Texas-based group is studying establishment of Amtrak service between Fort Worth, Texas, and Atlanta by filling in a missing link in the route.

The I-20 Corridor Council is seeking to get the states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi to press for restoration of rail passenger service on a 345-mile stretch between Marshall, Texas, and Meridian, Mississippi.

Marshall is served by Amtrak’s Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle whereas the Meridian is served by the New York-New Orleans Crescent.

The Eagle runs through Fort Worth while the Crescent runs through Atlanta.

Richard Anderson, chairman of the I-20 Council, said passenger service over the link ended more than 50 years ago.

“The concept is to have all three states pushing for this passenger rail service,” Anderson said. “It would benefit all three states — it would benefit the entire South.”

The I-20 Council is seeking to create a direct route from Mississippi to Texas as well as increase service in communities already served by Amtrak.

Anderson said capacity study is under way and depending what it shows, “ . . . we hope that we can get people to sit down at the table.”

Amtrak studied the Meridian-Marshall route in 2015 and concludes that the connection would not require an annual operating subsidy from any of the three states.

However, launching passenger service would require capital investment “to be paid by the states and/or federal government once the capacity study is completed and negotiations occur between Amtrak and host railroads.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the passenger carrier is working with the I-20 Council.

“We’re taking this one step at a time and we’re excited at the prospect,” he said. “There is a great group of people in east Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

“There’s a lot of demand for additional services around the country… Because people don’t like doing what I’m doing — talking while driving. They would much rather be talking to you from a train while riding.”

Also backing the proposal is the Southern Rail Commission, which has listed the Meridian-Marshall link as among its top priorities for expanded rail passenger service.

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.”