On December 4th, 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act became law, authorizing $305 billion over the next five years to the U.S Department of Transportation’s rail, highway, public transportation, safety, research and technology projects and programs. Among the FAST Act’s policy provisions, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) was provided $500,000 to convene a working group and conduct a study on restoring passenger rail service from New Orleans, Louisiana to Orlando, Florida. Formerly called the Sunset Limited, “Amtrak operated along this corridor prior to suspending service in August 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina, which caused extensive damage to the rail infrastructure over which the service operated” (FRA).
Appointed by the FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg, the representatives on the Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group (GCWG) include the FRA, Amtrak, States, municipalities and communities along the proposed route, regional transportation planning organizations, metropolitan planning organizations, the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) and railroad carriers whose tracks may be used in future service. Appointees from the State of Alabama to the working group are Mayor Sandy Stimpson (City of Mobile), Greg White (SRC Chairman), David Gehman (The Porch Band of Creek Indians), Don Arkle (Alabama Dept. of Transportation) and Wiley Blankenship (Coastal Alabama Partnership).
The responsibilities of the working group, outlined in the FAST Act, are to
- Evaluate all options for restoring passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast and select a preferred option.
- Prioritize and develop cost estimates for capital projects and other actions required to restore passenger rail services.
- Identify funding sources to restore service including potential public-private partnerships along the Gulf Coast.
The FRA has been given nine months to complete their task and the working group is roughly 4 months into the process. The working group met for the first time on Tuesday, February 16th, 2016 in New Orleans, prior to the 2-day Gulf Coast Passenger Rail Inspection Trip from New Orleans to Jacksonville. During the meeting, the group made a recommendation on a preferred route to restore passenger rail. The recommendation is to restore service with one train a day from New Orleans to Jacksonville and two trains a day from New Orleans to Mobile. It was determined among the group that ridership would be much higher if there were two trains a day from New Orleans to Mobile instead of one. The group will continue to meet once a month in person and once a month over conference call. The most recent in-person meeting was held in Biloxi, Mississippi on March 23rd. Mobile is expected to host the working group in July 2016.
“There has been an exciting pattern of cooperation from all parties in this effort – from federal and state elected officials from both sides of the aisle, to industry representatives, to community leaders. The progress made by the GCWG during its first 8 weeks of existence lead me to believe that gulf coast rail service is not only possible, but in fact, probable” – Greg White, Chairman of the SRC and member of the GCWG.
At the end of the nine month process, the working group will produce and submit a report to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation of the Senate and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives. The report will include the preferred option selected by the working group, potential funding sources and a cost and benefit analysis of restoring passenger rail along the Gulf Coast.