AL: Amtrak eyes possible dismissal of Gulf Coast rail case before May 1

Feb. 7, 2024
Amtrak believes the execution of a $178 million federal grant is “proceeding well,” and that a lengthy case before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board over the fate of passenger rail service between Mobile and New Orleans could be dismissed on or before May 1, a filing submitted Thursday states.

Amtrak believes the execution of a $178 million federal grant is “proceeding well,” and that a lengthy case before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board over the fate of passenger rail service between Mobile and New Orleans could be dismissed on or before May 1, a filing submitted Thursday states.

Amtrak, in the joint filing with the parties involved in the case, stated that if a dismissal is not filed on or before May 1, a further joint status will be submitted. The filing with the STB was due on Thursday and was signed off by attorneys representing Amtrak, the Alabama State Port Authority, and the two freight operators along the Gulf Coast — CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern.

The six-page filing also illustrates the issues that still need to be addressed in Mobile. A train station “must be completed” before the resumption of Gulf Coast passenger rail service, and a land lease agreement needs approval from a supermajority of the Mobile City Council, the filing states. The filing does not specifically include any mention of a cost-sharing request with the City of Mobile for the operation of a twice-daily Amtrak service between Mobile and New Orleans. The route will include four stops in coastal Mississippi: Pascagoula, Biloxi, Gulfport and Bay St. Louis.

A cost-sharing proposal could be a hurdle because it will need at least five of seven votes from the city council. At least two council members have publicly expressed doubts or concerns about the project or Amtrak service in general.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, following his “State of the City” address in January said the city was waiting on Amtrak to provide an operational cost estimate that would be expected of the city to support the twice-daily service. The filing indicates that Amtrak has “provided a draft agreement” of the land lease terms and is “actively negotiating agreement terms with the City.”

The filing also requests the STB forgo a hearing tentatively scheduled for Feb. 14. The STB called for the hearing last month to provide an update into the settlement agreement that was reached among all parties involved in the case in November 2022, more than 14 months ago. The City of Mobile was also asked to participate in the hearing if they so choose.

The agreement before the STB, among other things, calls for passenger rail service to be restored between the two cities for the first time since 2005.

Highlights within the filing include:

  • A train station in Mobile includes the installation of a 3,000-foot layover track at, or proximate to, the site of the former train station in downtown Mobile at the foot of Government Street at Water Street and near Cooper Riverside Park. Amtrak is set to fund the project separate from projects that are being supported by the $178 million federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant awarded by the Federal Railroad Administration toward the project in September.
  • The Mobile project is subject to the FRA’s review and approval under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Amtrak is preparing a NEPA submission, and has obtained special authorization from the FRA to continue proceeding with the project while the environmental review is underway. The FRA has required that no ground-disturbing activities can take place until NEPA clearance is granted and the FRA has signed off on the final project design. No timetable was provided for that.
  • Amtrak is understanding that a supermajority vote is needed on the final land use terms. The Port Authority, which up until late 2022 was opposed to the project, “has agreed to facilitate discussions and provide support for all efforts Amtrak undertakes with local authorities to promptly reach and agreement to secure the property necessary” for the train station.
  • The CRISI grant, which Amtrak has now received in full, will be used to fund “certain mutually-agreed-upon railroad infrastructure projects” associated with the implementation of the Gulf Coast service. Amtrak received the CRISIS grant terms and conditions in December, and considers the grant agreement “its highest priority” and is “optimistic that it can be completed within the next few months.” Once a preliminary grant agreement is reached, all parties involved in the case must agree to “various obligations contained within that agreement before it can be finalized.” A dismissal of the case before the STB will not take place “until funding for the agreed-upon infrastructure project is formally secured under an executed funding agreement.”
  • Before the settlement agreement was announced in November 2022, the STB had set a Dec. 7, 2022, date in which it was expected to determine the fate of the Gulf Coast project. The project represents the first time in the STB’s 27-year history that the federal board is involved in determining the control of a U.S. rail line pitting Amtrak against freight operators.

At the crux of the issue is whether a mandate established in 1971 should continue to require freight railroads to give passenger trains access to rail tracks in the U.S. During testimony in early 2022, experts said the Gulf Coast case could set a precedence for Amtrak’s operations throughout the country because it mostly operates on tracks owned by freight companies.

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