On Tuesday February 4th, the Mobile City Council with approval from the mayor, endorsed a letter of intent committing it to $3 million over 3 years to help defray operating cost for a possible return of Amtrak passenger rail service between Mobile and New Orleans. Tuesday was the last day that the city council could approve the letter of intent as the deadline for the federal grant application that the letter needed to be included with is Wednesday February 5th.
The vote on the resolution to authorize the letter of intent was six in favor and one against. The only council person to vote against the resolution was councilman Joel Daves, who has long been an opponent of this proposal to bring back passenger oil service along this line. Councilman Daves argues that this form of public transportation is unsustainable and uneconomical, and will end up costing the taxpayers more in the long run than it’s worth. According to his numbers, he believes that for every dollar that a passenger pays in fares on the train, the taxpayer will have to pay $100.
Proponents of restoring this passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, led by the Southern Rail Commission, argue that the numbers and estimates provided by Amtrak that councilman Daves is basing his decision on are conservative estimates and do not include revenues from advertising on the train and on board purchases and upgrades. The Southern Royal Commission has also said that if service is restored it, would be different commuter rail service than what was previously established on this line which was the Sunset Limited that was more of a cross-country train hat was plagued by low ridership, lengthy delays, and inconsistent arrival in departure times.
The fate of the letter of intent was not a foregone conclusion. A decision on this letter of intent has been delayed by the council several times, to gather more information, to hear from representatives of Amtrak as well as members of organizations opposed to the return of passenger rail service, like Jimmy Lyons the director of the Alabama State Port Authority, as well as representatives from the freight Rail companies CSX and Norfolk Southern rail, the companies that actually own the railroad lines that Amtrak will be traveling on.
Also councilman John Williams was waiting to receive guidance from the mayor’s office before committing to vote one way or the other on the proposal. Councilman Williams believed that a proposal like this should be vetted by the administration before coming to the council because of the ramifications it’ll have on the budget. He also believes that the mayor’s office is better equipped to analyze the information and data and come up with the recommendation as they have the staff to handle it, and the council does not. The mayor announced at the council’s pre-conference meeting, a weekly conference that they hold before their weekly council meeting, that he was able to support the letter of intent with a few revisions to ensure that the city was not committing to anything more than the three million dollars over three years and to ensure that enough contingencies were in place that they were not on the hook for the money if the service did not start.
Councilwoman Gina Gregory was concerned that the city was committing funds to this project without any commitment from the Mobile County Commission or the state of Alabama. Those concerns were somewhat alleviated last week when County Commission president Jerry Carl said in a radio interview with FM talk 106.5 that the county commission was considering committing funds to the project, but were waiting to see what the Mobile City Council did before moving forward.
Even with this letter of intent, the Southern Rail commission warned that return of Amtrak is not a done deal. There still has to be a study conducted along the rail line to figure out how best to mitigate any possible disruptions to freight rail traffic, and to see what infrastructure improvements need to be made to necessitate the return. The return of passenger rail service, if it does return, is not projected to happen until 2022.