WASHINGTON D.C. - The Gulf Coast Passenger Rail Working Group (GCWG) delivered its final report Monday to members of Congress, and members of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) say they are "well pleased" and "optimistic" about the future of the return of passenger rail service here.
The GCWG was created by Congress to study and evaluate the restoration of the service in Section 11304 of Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, with the SRC appointed to be part of this group.
The report details anticipated capital costs of less than $112M, plus estimated $5M for project development and planning.
"Yesterday’s delivery to Congress of the Gulf Coast Passenger Rail Working Group’s Final Report by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) provides positive endorsement for the Southern Rail Commission’s long standing recommendation that passenger rail service be restored across America’s Gulf Coast," stated the SRC Tuesday in a press release, calling the report the culmination of more than 18 months of dedicated service on the part of the GCWG appointees, including Amtrak, CSX, FRA, SRC, and over 30 regional stakeholders.
“We are encouraged that FRA has found that rail service can begin quickly and at a reasonable cost," said SRC Chairman Greg White. "The SRC is grateful for the unified political and grassroots support the restoration of Gulf Coast passenger rail service has received from Mayors to Governors to the gulf south's Congressional Delegation. Since 2012, the base of this support has consistently expressed that daily passenger service is essential for the economic resiliency of America’s gulf coast.”
The GCWG recommended two preferred service options: daily long-distance train service between Orlando and New Orleans with estimated annual operating need of $5.48M, and a daily regional train between New Orleans and Mobile with an estimated annual operating need of $4M.
Funding for the capital improvements and operating costs outlined in the report could be acquired through new federal rail programs such as the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program for capital expenses andfrom the Restoration and Enhancement Grant (REG) Program for operating support. The SRC has also received significant interest and initial commitments from private sector partners across the gulf coast interested in contributing to the rail project.
Also noted in the Report, the SRC and FRA are currently providing $1.33M in grant funds to communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama for station area planning and rail safety improvements. These communities have contributed their own cash match, resulting in more than $2.6M in projects underway in preparation for service restoration.
Officials still stress the former stops — known as the “legacy stops” — will remain the same. In Florida, those stops are Pensacola, Crestview, Chipley, Madison, Tallahassee, Lake City, and Jacksonville. One additional stop will be implemented in Live Oak at the request of local officials.
Amtrak estimated in 2015 that the rail service could produce an annual ridership of between 138,300 and 153,900 and generate annual revenue between $12.25 million and $12.72 million.
“Congress has identified this route as being of high importance and interest for the public," said White. “Continued investments in our national passenger rail system are vital as our society becomes increasingly mobile and we look for ways to improve access to skilled workers, jobs, and new opportunities for economic development. The SRC is committed to ensuring the Gulf Coast region of our country is not left out.”
As Amtrak and host railroad CSX begin to finalize agreements, the timeline for the rail service to be up and running could be as little as six to 12 months, according to Amtrak Director of Government Affairs Todd Stennis.
“It’s premature to give an actual timeline because we’re not sure how long it will be before the negotiations are finalized,” Stennis said. “But once the agreements are in place, we’re probably looking at a six- to 12-month period. The question is how long is it between now and when we get to that point.”