CHIPLEY - It's been more than a decade since Amtrak passenger train service has passed through Chipley on its way from Los Angeles to eastern Florida on a route dubbed the Sunset Limited. The route stopped operations due to destruction left in wake of Hurricane Katrina, affecting Chipley, Pensacola, Crestview, Tallahassee, and Lake City. While the damaged tracks and signals have been long since repaired, Amtrak's passenger service did not resume east of New Orleans - but Florida's local governments and lawmakers hope the route will soon rise again.
The Southern Rail Commission (SRC) submitted an application to the Federal Railroad Administration for a planning grant that would asses the feasibility, economic impact, and intermodal needs to support the restored service. According to the study, the service would generate 138,300 passengers annually and cost about $5.48 million to operate.
SRC and Amtrak are in discussion about a proposal that would provide a daily service from Orlando to New Orleans, as well as a supplemental service that runs from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans.
“It’s realistic, and we're excited about it,” said SRC Chairman Gregory White. “We have an unprecedented amount of support from elected officials and partners from all over the Gulf Coast region."
Chipley Mayor Lee Dell Kennedy is among more than 20 mayors across the region to provide letters of support for the project and call on Congress to restore passenger rail service here.
"Amtrak is trying to come back, and we want it to come back because it will impact our area," said Kennedy. "The restoration of this service would have a positive economic impact."
For Chipley, restoration of the route would also mean a re-connection with heritage.
Chipley is widely known for its railroad history, having been renamed from Orange to Chipley in 1882 in honor of Col. W.D. Chipley, who was instrumental in bringing the railroad industry to the area.
Chipley even centered its Centennial Celebration around that heritage in 1982.
"I used to love the hustle and bustle of the depot when I was little," said Marjorie Crews of Chipley. "I hope Amtrak comes back. It would be like breathing life into the depot."
Amtrak officials are hopeful as well.
"It's just a proposal at this time, but we look forward to working with the Southern Rail Commission, as well as the City of Chipley to make this a reality," said Amtrak representative Marcus Magliari.
Officials still aren't sure how the project will be funded but are hopeful it will be named one of the projects receiving federal funding from the $305 billion transportation bill signed off on by President Obama earlier this month. An agreement could also be reached so that the companies and states that stand to benefit from the restoration may also help fund it.
If the proposal is approved and funded, officials believe Amtrak passenger service can be restored within the next five years.
Passenger rail service would provide improved accessibility for the more than 2 million residents in the proposed service area between New Orleans and Orlando that includes a growing senior population
• Would boost Gulf Coast economy by connecting the growing population centers and tourist destinations, and supporting diverse jobs, health care, higher education, beaches, casinos and multiple military bases
• Provides critical evacuation route for Gulf Coast cities
• Provides alternate mode of transportation for more than 5 million people annually visiting the beaches of southern Alabama, alone, with similar numbers visiting the beaches of northwest Florida and southern Mississippi
• Would support growing tourism industry which has increased revenue per available room by 27 percent in the Florida Panhandle, 20 percent along the Alabama Gulf Coast, 10 percent throughout the Mississippi Gulf Coast and 51 percent in Orleans Parish
• Would serve the workforce of growing industries such as oil and gas, petrochemical, aerospace, shipping and the military
• Would attract additional sales tax revenue from casino patrons, visitors and tourists
• Will serve communities with very high poverty rates with limited access to transportation alternatives
SOURCE: Southern Rail Commission