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Monday, February 22, 2010

Mississippi Rail Authority hits bump in road

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A plan to build a new railroad through George County, Miss., that will connect the Port of Pascagoula with rail connections at Lucedale and Meridian has hit its first bump in the road, but has not been derailed, the Hattiesburg American reports.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced project recipients of approximately $1 billion in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants on Feb. 17, but the proposed $225 million track project between Lucedale and Waynesboro was not among them. A $20-million project to improve the railroad track between the Port of Gulfport and Hattiesburg was approved under the same program.

Geoffrey Clark, executive director for the Regional Railroad Authority of East Mississippi is not discouraged. "I think that the prospects for this project are just as good as when we submitted the TIGER grant application," he said. "It is a big project and it is going to be a long process. There are going to be a lot of bumps in the road along the way."

Clark said the TIGER grant was not the sole source of funding for the roughly 50 miles of new rail line between Lucedale and Waynesboro that is being proposed.

Rail service extends from Meridian to Waynesboro. Meridian is a major rail hub, served by the Meridian & Bigbee Railroad, Amtrak, the Meridian Southern Railway and Norfolk Southern, with a Meridian Southern line running to Waynesboro. There is also rail service from Pascagoula to Lucedale connecting the Canadian National Line and a CSX Transportation line.

A line between Lucedale and Waynesboro would provide a direct route between Pascagoula and Mobile, Ala., to Meridian, an idea that has been kicked around by economic development people for more than a decade.

With the possibility of TIGER funds as a part of the nearly $1 trillion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the stimulus bill), the idea gained momentum and a five county rail authority was formed late last summer. The counties joining the authority were Clark, George, Greene, Lauderdale and Wayne. Each county kicked in $75,000 for initial expenses, including a feasibility study, to get the project started. Jackson County has recently announced that although not signing on as a full member, it will match the contribution made by the other counties.

Port of Pascagoula Commissioner Jim Hoskins supported the move.

"This has been one of our Achilles' heels at the port, getting stuff out of here," he said in a news release announcing the Port's contribution.

Clark said that members of the Railroad Authority would be going to Washington, D.C., within the next two weeks to meet with Mississippi congressional delegation staff. They will present funding requests for the project. Clark said he is also hopeful some funding may be available through state agencies as well.