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Transportation Nation

7 Years After Katrina Washed it Away, Mayors, Amtrak Considering Gulf Coast Rail Bigger than Before

Friday, August 24, 2012

A 2009 Amtrak plan suggests three option s for restoring gulf coast service from New Orleans to Florida.

In 2005, there weren't many passenger trains rolling from Florida to New Orleans -- just three a week in each direction.

Now there are none.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina washed away swathes of rail along the Gulf Coast owned by CSX. Amtrak used those tracks for the last stretch of the Sunset Limited service mostly for passengers going to, or coming from, as far off as Los Angeles. After the storm, Amtrak suspended -- though it did not officially cancel -- the Gulf Coast portion of the route. Seven years later,  from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle Mayors are plotting how to bring back the trains, and add new ones.

More than 40 mayors gathered last week in Mobile, Alabama to hear from Amtrak what they need to do to get trains rolling. If they get their way, the new Sunset Limited Gulf Coast service will be more frequent than before in hopes of boosting tourism and commerce.

According to a review of a 2009 report by Transportation Nation, restoring train service would not be cheap, and the old Sunset route did not turn a profit. Bringing it back requires federal or state support to build it, and then almost certainly, a subsidy to run it. So, the coalition of mayors and local leaders are strategizing how to lobby their representatives in Congress to get the federal funding process going.

Chart from Amtrak Presentation on PRIIA Plan presented to Gulf Coast Mayors. Figures are 2009 dollars.

The Panama City News Herald reports: "Officials believe reviving the train service would be a boost to tourism and would help the economies of communities across the Gulf Coast still recovering from Katrina." According to the paper, "Mobile, Alabama Mayor Sam Jones wants an alternative to cars and planes, both of which he calls "too costly."

A 2008 act of Congress, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIAA), required Amtrak to come up with a plan for restoring service. The national rail company offered a 52 page report with three options: restoring the old, sleepy tri-weekly nighttime service, extend the famous City of New Orleans route from Chicago to New Orleans so it turns east to Orlando, Fla. A third option is to  launch a new daily service.

Amtrak tells Transportation Nation the plan is there and done. "It is now the decision of federal and state policymakers to determine if passenger rail service should be restored, identify the preferred option and provide the additional funding for capital and ongoing operating costs."

Some of the stations along the route were so infrequently used that it will be hard to argue for restoring them in tight fiscal times. A local website, NorthEscambria.com reports that fewer than three people per week boarded Sunset Limited trains at the Atmore, Alabama station.

Still, Mayors want the service back, and the primary goal of their big meeting on August 16th, was to gather facts they can use to convince Congress to pony up funding. The Pensacola News Journal reported support from the mayors of New Orleans, Pensacola, Fla. and Mobile, Alabama and others want to take economic arguments to their Congressional representatives. Daily daytime service would make it possible for someone to live in Biloxi, Miss, or nearby and work in New Orleans, or for New Orleanians to take short vacations along the Gulf Coast. That's the kind of story a Congressman would need to hear to devote taxpayer money to an unprofitable line.

Another meeting of mayors and local supporters will take place in the next three months months to focus in on Congressional proposals to pitch to federal lawmakers. Mayor Jones of Mobile, told the Alabama Local "we've probably got another six months worth of preparation before we step out with our plan and proposal."

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