Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Restoring Amtrak to Gulf Coast will be costly

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Restoring passenger rail service from New Orleans along the Gulf Coast to Orlando, Fla., will cost tens of millions of dollars and take a minimum of almost two years to accomplish, according to a new Amtrak study that also predicts the revived route would be a money-loser, according to the Mobile, Ala., Press-Register.

Service on the old Sunset Limited line, passing through Pascagoula, Mobile and Atmore was halted after Hurricane Katrina trashed the Gulf Coast in August 2005.


Under the congressionally required study released last month, Amtrak focused on three options for putting passenger trains back on the tracks:
• Restoring the thrice-weekly service that existed before Katrina as part of Amtrak's trans-continental line from Los Angeles to Orlando. The estimated re-start costs, such as repairing and upgrading stations, would be about $33 million; restoring service would take at least 20 months from the date that money for those improvements becomes available.
• Extending the daily City of New Orleans line, now operating from Chicago to New Orleans east to Orlando. The estimated price tag ranges from $57.6 million to $96.6 million. Because new equipment would be needed, the re-start time would be about four years, according to the study.
• Creating a daily, stand-alone overnight train from New Orleans to Orlando. This would carry similar cost and start-up times as the second option and is also the choice of mayors along the Gulf Coast, Mobile Mayor Sam Jones said in an interview.

Restoring service is "essential," Jones said. "It provides a lot of transportation options that don't presently exist on the Gulf Coast." Although Mobile's Amtrak station was demolished after Katrina, Jones said the train could stop at the planned maritime museum. The city already intends to house a passenger ferry terminal there.

The next step will be up to Congress and possibly the states to decide whether restored passenger service "makes sense to them financially," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. Under all three scenarios, the route would not be profitable once trains started running, according to the report, with projected operating losses running from $4.8 million per year under the first option to $18.4 million under the third. Amtrak already requires heavy federal help to break even.

In a statement, Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, said he plans to review the report with members of the House transportation committee, which also received it. Bonner also wanted to learn more from community leaders about how passenger service would create jobs and other economic development.

Assuming that funding does come through, revived passenger service would "produce modest net economic benefits," the study said, mainly through spending on station improvements and other investments. It would also provide "mobility benefits" by linking Florida, the Gulf Coast and the central and western United States.

Besides buttonholing members of the Alabama congressional delegation, Jones said he plans to contact Rep. Corrinne, Brown, a Jacksonville, Fla. lawmaker who chairs a transportation panel that oversees Amtrak.

Passenger rail service along the eastern Gulf Coast has struggled for decades. Before Amtrak's creation in 1971, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, which later became part of CSX Transportation, together ran a train from New Orleans to Jacksonville. That route was dropped after Amtrak took over and it wasn't until 1984 that the railroad created a daily line between Mobile and New Orleans, according to the study.

The link, funded in part by the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, was mainly designed to boost attendance at the Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans. It was dropped in 1985 after the state funding dried up, although briefly revived in 1996-97.

Meanwhile, Amtrak in 1993 pushed the route of the Sunset Limited, which ran from Los Angeles and New Orleans, further east into Florida. The train was consistently late, the study says, due in part to freight train interference. In fiscal 2004, the Sunset Limited's on-time performance was 4.3 percent and remained poor after that despite schedule adjustments.

 

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