It appears the move by local leaders to convince Amtrak to restore train service along the Gulf Coast with a stop in Tallahassee may be getting help from an unlikely group – Republicans.
While Republicans have traditionally criticized federal subsidies to Amtrak, recently local and state Republican leaders along the Gulf Coast have promoted a revived Amtrak route as a tool for commerce and jobs.
And this approach my get support from President-elect Donald Trump.
In a report titled “Republicans Embrace Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Rebirth, Politico reporter Lauren Gardener describes how Republicans are “cheering Amtrak’s efforts to restart the Gulf Coast passenger train line that Hurricane Katrina wiped out.”
Gardener writes “the pro-transportation message of President-elect Donald Trump, who is proposing a nationwide $1 trillion infrastructure upgrade that he says would make the nation’s roads, bridges, airports and railroads “second to none” is consistent with what local leaders are supporting.
“I think we can make Amtrak work,” said Republican Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker. “We can make it more friendly to the taxpayer, and more efficient, but I think we need Amtrak, and I’ll just say it.”
Wicker believes that in addition to the transportation benefits, Amtrak’s Gulf Coast would benefit local economies by making it easier for tourists and business travelers to move through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
And he is not alone.
Mississippi Gov Phil Bryant said the “only thing we need on this Gulf Coast and in Biloxi — we have the beauty, we have that ocean, we have the most wonderful people on the planet — we just need more people.”
“You’re going to depopulate rural communities if you can’t connect them to the larger economy,” said John Robert Smith, a former Republican mayor of Meridian, Miss., who used to chair Amtrak’s board and now advocates for transit-oriented development.
Sandy Stimpson, the Republican mayor of Mobile, Ala., said providing money for rail is “part of the federal government’s obligation to address transportation.”
Politico reported that Stimpson, the Mobile mayor, wants to use a recently awarded $14.5 million federal grant to pay for bike lanes, crosswalks and other features to help connect a low-income neighborhood to jobs at the city’s aviation manufacturing hub, with any leftover money possibly going to efforts to construct a downtown trail system.
But federal money is still essential, said Stimpson, who’s wary about how much money his city might be asked to kick in to ensure Amtrak trains can stop there.
Last February 18th and 19th the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) ran an inspection train from New Orleans to Jacksonville as part of a plan to restore passenger rail service between New Orleans and Orlando.
The trained carried members of the Tallahassee City Commission and Leon County Commission among industry representatives and other community leaders.
In June 2016, the Tallahassee City Commission adopted a resolution supporting restoration of passenger rail service between New Orleans, Louisiana and Orlando, Florida, with a designated stop in Tallahassee, Florida.
The resolution was based on the belief that passenger rail service to the eastern Gulf Coast would facilitate job creation, enhance tourism, and reduce environmental and roadway impacts due to personal automobile use.
In September 2016, TheHill.com reported the SRC working group told lawmakers it is making significant progress in its efforts, but still has to identify cost estimates and possible funding solutions.
The group also told lawmakers that it prefers a daily, overnight long-distance train between New Orleans and Orlando that would operate as an extension of the Chicago-to-New Orleans route. It also would support an additional, daily state-supported train operating round-trip between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala.
In December 2016, the SRC announced more than $2 million in allocations through the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to 11 communities in three southern states that are making plans for restored and improved Amtrak service.
A total of 11 grants will be awarded to communities in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. The commission worked with the states’ congressional delegations, the FRA, host railroads and Amtrak to pursue the federal funds to restore the rail service in the three states, according to the SRC press release.
However, the future of Amtrak on the Gulf Coast comes back to the long-term financial viability of the operation.
As Politico reports, lawmakers skirmish every year over Amtrak’s appropriations, causing supporters to consider it a victory just to avoid cuts to its $1.4 billion annual appropriation.
So for Amtrak, the Gulf Coast is a crucial test. If it fails here, it would lose an opportunity to take hold in a region whose population is expected to boom, as well as a chance to expand its political appeal.
“I think the more that we show that we can run a safe, financially responsible railroad, the more likely it is that people of both political parties will be supportive of it,” Amtrak board Chairman Anthony Coscia said.
The most immediate task is to prove that Gulf Coast service can be cost-effective.