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Roll Tide! Amtrak to Return to Gulf Coast (If Alabama Helps)

Amtrak hopes to restore its Sunset Limited line connecting New Orleans and Mobile within two years.

Amtrak is moving full speed ahead toward returning to the Gulf Coast within two years, but some stakeholders are wary about the cost and quality of the service.

The Federal Railroad Administration awarded $33 million last week to the Southern Rail Commission, a group that advocates for improving rail transit, to upgrade rail infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The grant would cover roughly half of the project's $65.9-million cost that would allow Amtrak to launch a new passenger line between New Orleans and Mobile, replacing the discontinued Sunset Limited east route. A combination of investments from Amtrak and Gulf Coast states would make up the remainder.

Mississippi Republican Senator Roger Wicker announced the state would pitch in $15 million to refurbish the route, ending months of speculation about whether state leaders would support the restoration. The Magnolia State has the most stops along the line — Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pascagoula. Louisiana had already committed $10 million to the project.

“For Mississippi, restoring passenger rail service is a symbol of the huge strides our state has made to recover from one of the most devastating storms on record," Wicker said in a statement on Friday. "Reconnecting the Gulf Coast to our nation’s passenger rail network will increase access to jobs, provide an alternative to highway travel, and improve quality of life in the region.”

But Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she needed more information about how service would affect the port of Mobile, the only rail stop in the state. The legislature already signed off this year on $150 million to widen the shipping channel and maintain roads nearby.

“While the grant may be a kickstart, we still need to see what the long-term implications would be — both positive and negative — to the Port, which has been the focus of a lot of efforts — and money — in recent months and years,” Ivey told Alabama News. "Plus, I want to make certain we know what the long-term financial commitments will be long after this grant has been spent."

Alabama's portion of the Gulf Coast rail project is only $2.7 million. The project has some local support — the Mobile City Council put up $125,000 to design a downtown train station.

But if the state doesn't fix rail infrastructure between Mobile and Pascagoula, service through the Cotton State could be slower than the western part of the line.

“I anticipate that it will come to Mobile,” SRC member and Coastal Alabama Partnership CEO Wiley Blankenship told Alabama News. “The question I cannot answer is the portion that lies in Alabama, since there needs to be infrastructure improvements on it for safety and things like that … the train won’t be moving very fast.”

Rail advocates have been rooting for Amtrak's return for more than a decade — and for improving service eventually to provide daily trips between New Orleans and Orlando, Fla.

They insist that the new Amtrak line will be significantly better than the Sunset Limited line, which ran poorly and infrequently. Amtrak's only presence in Alabama is the lightly traveled Crescent Line which travels a leisurely path from New York to New Orleans via Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Anniston.

But the Gulf Coast rail line is one of the few Amtrak expenditures Republicans support because it could spur economic development in the region and make it easier for tourists and business leaders to get around.

“I think we can make Amtrak work,” Wicker told Politico in 2017. “We can make it more friendly to the taxpayer, and more efficient — but I think we need Amtrak, and I’ll just say it.”

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