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Gulf Coast Passenger Rail chugs along, leaves Northwest Florida behind

Progress for Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Passenger Rail is moving right along, thanks to recent allocations by the Southern Rail Commission from the Federal Railroad Administration to the cities of Gulfport, Miss. Bay St. Louis, Miss., Pascagoula, Miss., and Birmingham, Ala. to complete construction and enhance accessibility for each of their local passenger train stations. 

SRC awarded a total of $953,338 in four grants: Gulfport will receive $246,500, Bay St. Louis will receive $270,000, Pascagoula will receive $186,838 and Birmingham will receive $250,000. Each of these grants required a local match of the same amount. 

The grant funding allows for investments in existing station rail facilities that ensure safe access and better connectivity to and from the station, including amenities such as lighting, sidewalks, parking areas and surrounding area development, which could improve ridership potential and expand the economic opportunity that comes with station redevelopment. 

Chipley was previously tapped to be revived as one of seven Florida “legacy stops” planned for the passenger rail when local officials, as well as those with the Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), passed through the state on the “inspection train” in February 2016, a test run of sorts that was part of a feasibility study for resurrecting the passenger rail along the Gulf Coast.

Efforts by Florida to participate in the service have since been abandoned, however.

It’s now been 16 years since Amtrak passenger train service last passed through Chipley on its way from Los Angeles to eastern Florida on a route then dubbed the Sunset Limited. The route stopped operations due to destruction left in wake of Hurricane Katrina, affecting Chipley, Pensacola, Crestview, Tallahassee, and Lake City. While the damaged tracks and signals have been long since repaired, Amtrak’s passenger service did not resume east of New Orleans.

The SRC hoped to revive the service with the Gulf Coast Passenger Rail, stating in an early study submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration that the restored service would generate 138,300 passengers – and between $12.25 and $12.72 million in revenue – annually.

“As we anticipate the return of Gulf Coast service in early 2022, I am so proud to provide this funding to these cities which leverages their local investment in preparing their stations to be ready for the return of passenger rail,” said SRC Chairman and Mississippi Commissioner Knox Ross. “Local leaders have been committed to these projects and have expressed incredible enthusiasm about the economic growth that passenger rail will bring to our member states and the Gulf Coast.” 

“Birmingham is a central transport hub in the South, and we fully understand the vitality that investments in transit-oriented development can bring,” said SRC Secretary and Alabama Commissioner Stephen McNair. “Birmingham’s project will create seamless connections for travelers between long distance passenger rail and local transit service through its beautiful multimodal station.”

Earlier this year, Amtrak announced their intent to begin passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile in January 2022. Amtrak also made a commitment to invest in completing all needed repairs within the railroad path of travel and constructing new accessible, well-lit, ADA compliant platforms. The funding for the first three years of operations for the New Orleans to Mobile service has been secured, but the start of service is pending a decision by the Surface Transportation Board on Amtrak’s right of access to operate passenger service along the Gulf Coast corridor, due to be decided in December 2021.

This allotment represents the second round of grant funding by the SRC who previously awarded $525,000 to four entities for station area planning. The SRC anticipates awarding a third round of grants in 2022.

Meanwhile, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told the Washington County News that the Sunset Limited is still on the map but has been suspended, at least for the time being.

“One issue is infrastructure,” said Magliari. “The line across the Florida Panhandle is what is termed ‘dark territory,’ which means it has no signal, and that is something that would have to be addressed.” Magliari states that in addition to infrastructure improvements along the railway itself, the connectivity problems must be solved to allow for passenger rail service, which operates at higher speed than freight service.

SRC Mississippi member Knox Ross states it will take government officials, from the local level on up, working together to make the service a reality for Florida.

“The next step is getting the state officials on board to say that they want it and communicate that to Amtrak,” said Ross. “Amtrak is now pushing city-paired services. For example, they encouraged us to look at New Orleans and Mobile as the first city-paired services they would roll out, and that’s what we’ve been working on. But if [Amtrak] wants to build those city-paired networks, they will need to build on the back of the long distance network. We’ve had a tremendous struggle in getting this done in working with the host railroads. They had a different opinion from us on what infrastructure would cost, estimating $2.3 billion in improvements to the line from New Orleans to Jacksonville.”

Florida Department of Transportation spokesperson Alecia Collins says there are several key issues to consider regarding the return of Amtrak service on at least part of that long distance network, from to Orlando through Jacksonville. 

“[Issues to consider] include whether the service will be sponsored by the state and what costs might be incurred, who will be responsible for the significant investments that will need to occur related to the infrastructure on the corridor in Florida, how the service will operate, attracting the ridership needed to justify the investment, and ensure sustainability, and the potential impacts to freight,” said Collins.

“All of these issues, in addition to safety, require rigorous research to ensure that the best possible decisions will be made for our state. Regardless of its involvement in the Southern Rail Commission, the department is engaged in discussions with Amtrak about the future of intercity passenger rail in Florida as a whole. These discussions include a variety of potential priorities for Amtrak including, but not limited to, the restoration of the Gulf Coast service.”

Collins went on to say FDOT is proactively supporting research to lay the groundwork to inform the best policy decisions, having recently conducted a study with Florida State University on the possibility of intercity passenger rail for the I-10 Corridor. 

Governor DeSantis’ office states he supports these efforts and is open to considering any policy proposal that will improve the lives of Floridians on the whole.

“Infrastructure decisions like this are complex and require policymakers to have a comprehensive picture of the different approaches that can be taken,” said Christina Pushaw, Press Secretary with the Office of the Governor.

“The Governor recognizes that Floridians are interested in a variety of transportation options that best meet their diverse needs, and this landscape is constantly evolving, along with technology and consumer demand. Therefore, Gov. DeSantis supports FDOT’s efforts to research and evaluate new possibilities for transportation in Florida, including passenger rail service in different parts of our state. Gov. DeSantis supports FDOT’s constructive engagement with all potential partners in the public and private sector on this issue.”

Locally, the measure has the support of Senator George Gainer, who has served as Chair of the State Transportation Committee since 2016.

“It’s not a question of if we want the Passenger Rail. It’s a question of how we are going to fund it,” said Sen. Gainer. “We have to find a way to pay for it before we can really discuss bringing it back.”

Meanwhile, Chipley Mayor Tracy Andrews says the return of passenger service here would be a major boon for Chipley and Washington County. 

“I would definitely love to see the return of Amtrak’s Gulf Coast service to this region,” said Mayor Andrews. “To have Amtrak stop at the Chipley station will give travelers an opportunity to see and experience our quaint and thriving city.”

“Chipley is unique and has something to offer everyone who might be visiting from great eating places, nutritional shake shops, fine coffee, clothing boutiques, antique shops, hair salons, barbershops and a variety of even more amenities. Restoring Amtrak service in this area would offer this community an additional mass transportation system that would be affordable, reliable and an additional resource for traveling.”

The Gulf Coast Passenger Rail is projected to officially return in New Orleans, Mobile, and Mississippi as early as January 2022.

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