White: Commission making progress toward restoring rail

Published 12:23 am Thursday, September 29, 2016

A working group established to develop a capital plan to help restore rail service is making great strides toward it, officials said this week.

Southern Rail Commission Chairman Greg White said Congress passed a Surface Transportation Bill – Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, also known as FAST Act of 2015, to include passenger rail authorization along with highway and transit needs for the first time in U.S. history.

“The Southern Rail Commission has identified the return of passenger service to the Gulf Coast as one of our priorities, along with new service from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, new service between Meridian, Miss., and Dallas-Fort Worth, and a return of service between Birmingham and Mobile,” White said.

As part of the bill, the Federal Railroad Administration was required to convene a working group to evaluate the restoration of intercity rail passenger service between New Orleans and Orlando.

White said the group’s mission is to recommend capital and operating solutions to restore Gulf Coast rail service.

The group compiled by the FRA, and includes local elected officials, members of the state DOTs, CSX, Amtrak, the Southern Rail Commission, businesses, tribes – all representing the interests Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi communities.

Passenger rail service on the Gulf Coast was suspended in 2005 after the railway sustained heavy damage due to Hurricane Katrina. The passenger service along the Gulf Coast ran from 1984 to 2005.

In February, an inspection train traveled from New Orleans to Jacksonville.

Members of the group, which includes White, have met seven times in person and held numerous teleconferences to fulfill its requires.

The group is utilizing the Amtrak feasibility study that was completed in December 2015.

The study estimated the needed operating assistance for the New Orleans to Orlando route would be some $5.48 million and that adding a route from New Orleans to Mobile would needed an additional $4 million each year.

The overall goal is to restore service within 24 months.

Below is the progress of the Working Group to date:

  • Working Group coordinated FRA and US DOTD on passenger rail related issues in the FAST Act and the FY2017 THUD bill.
  • Working Group coordinat ed with FRA to engage CSX to complete corridor capacity study.
  • The SRC has a $2.45 million unused rail research earmark for the federally designated high speed Gulf Coast corridor and issued a   call in April for applications for these funds to support rail station area development in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
  • Work is underway in collaboration with the FRA, the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the Gulf Coast Congressional leadership, CSX, Amtrak and the SRC to evaluate needs in order to reach agreement on phasing capital construction and schedule for the restored passenger rail service.

In Alabama, the Southern Rail Commission has received resolutions of support from the cities of Atmore, Madison, Mobile, Escambia County, Mobile MPO, Poarch Creek Band of Indians and the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission.

“So, the progress being made by the Gulf Coast Working Group under the leadership of FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg is exciting,” he said. “There has been steady progress made – almost weekly – throughout 2016, as Amtrak, CSX, the FRA and others have worked toward a common goal.”

White said that the governors in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have made passenger rail a high priority.

“Have the governors of our three-member states supporting the efforts of the SRC certainly makes the probability of success even greater.”