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Is privatization the future of passenger rail service in Alabama?

Amtrak service in Alabama has been in noted decline since 1995.

The Southern Rail Commission’s plan to restore Amtrak’s old Gulf Coast line was dashed when Governor Kay Ivey (R) refused to contribute $9 million in state matching dollars for a federal grant to extend Amtrak service from New Orleans to Mobile. The old Gulf Coast Line shut down in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

The line would have also included stops in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pascagoula. Mississippi Governor Dewey Phillip Bryant (R) also elected not to contribute to the project. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) did commit money to the project; but the SRC could not apply for the federal grant without matching money from all three states.

The Southern Rail Commission on their website had plans to eventually extend that Gulf State line through the Port of Mobile to Atmore and from there to the Florida Panhandle, perhaps even as far as Pensacola. The Commission even talked about one day restoring the old Gulf Breeze line that once went from Birmingham to Montgomery and on to Mobile. That was discontinued in 1995.

Gov. Ivey said in a statement, “As we continue to address congestion on our surface transportation systems, both on our highways and rail system, I currently do not plan to provide limited state resources to passenger rail service.  We have higher priority opportunities to address congestion on I-10 through the Mobile River Bridge project, expansion of the Port of Mobile and numerous highway projects around the state.”

Ivey followed that decision with a letter last week to Southern Rail Commission chairman, John Spain announcing that she has fired her representative on the Commission, Jerry Gehman.  Gehman had been a very outspoken advocate of the plan to seek the grant to restore the old Gulf Coast Line.

The future of passenger rail in Alabama seems to be dim at the moment; but there is a new private passenger rail company that has set up shop in Montgomery. The goal is to connect cities across the state, like Birmingham, Huntsville, and even as far down south as Pensacola. Some rail advocates favor the new private rail startup to the heavily subsidized wholly government-owned monopoly that is Amtrak. Amtrak only operates in a small part of the state, connecting Birmingham, Anniston and Tuscaloosa with Atlanta and New Orleans.  The new company hopes to provide rail service along the I-65 corridor.

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Officials with the company have said that their goal is to have the rail ready within the next two years.

Private rail advocate Perry O Hooper Jr. supports Ivey’s decision not to provide the matching funds for the grant application.

“I commend Governor Kay Ivey for standing firm in support of free enterprise and not choosing to waste Alabama tax dollars by further subsidizing Amtrak rail service,” Hooper said in a statement. “I would also like to commend Governor Phil Bryant of Mississippi in joining Governor Ivey in rejecting this latest Government Boondoggle. Just like the United States Postal Service, Amtrak is a Corporation wholly owned by the Government but not as well run. Created by Congress in 1970 Amtrak has never posted an annual profit. It has been bailed out every year by taxpayer dollars to the tune of a total of 46 billion dollars. Like this latest proposal, Amtrak goes to individual states and ask for state taxpayer dollars to further expand this money losing albatross. What a scam.”

Hooper is a former state representative, the Trump River Region Chairman and a prominent member of the Alabama Republican Executive Committee.

“Passenger rail has a bright future in Alabama,” Hooper continued. “The Republican National Convention in 2016 passed a platform plank calling on our party to support free enterprise in passenger rail service. Let private companies provide the service with state of the art trains that make them a joy to ride, not the 40-year old Amtrak retreads. Governor Ivey has taken an important step in making sure that Alabama does just that.”

In 2013 ADECA did a study of expanding passenger rail service from Birmingham to Mobile. That would mean reaching an agreement with freight train company CSX and then making improvements to the tracks so that it can accommodate both freight and passenger trains. Stations would also have to be built.

That ADECA study is linked here.

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Written By

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.



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