BAY ST. LOUIS — A U.S. Department of Transportation official said the Biden administration is confident the passenger rail will return to the Mississippi coast during a groundbreaking ceremony for a platform on Monday.
Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg spoke after local leaders stuck shovels into a mound of earth in front of Bay St. Louis’ historic train depot to mark the start of construction for a new platform that conforms with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the Amtrak-funded platform construction is symbolic for now — the future of the passenger route that would use it remains up in the air.
Amtrak is waiting for a federal committee to arbitrate in a long-standing dispute over the Gulf Coast’s ability to accommodate both freight and passenger trains on shared tracks. Amtrak has not operated a Gulf Coast route since Hurricane Katrina. Trottenberg, visiting from Washington, DC, repeated Amtrak’s claims that there was room for passenger trains between Mobile and New Orleans with four stops in Mississippi.
“I think you can see from Amtrak’s commitment to getting these platforms ready that they’re confident they’re going to run the train,” Knox Ross of the Southern Rail Commission said at Monday’s ceremony.
The Bay St. Louis platform is the first of five stations on the Gulf Coast route to begin construction and receive similar updates. According to Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari, each will cost about half a million dollars, for a total of about $2 million.
About $66 million in funding has already been secured for Amtrak’s desired route, but Amtrak and freighters CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern have been in a year-long back-and-forth with little progress.
Amtrak filed a complaint with the Surface Transportation Board last year. The Federal Transport Expert Group is set up by the Federal President to settle railway disputes. Earlier this year, the board spent days giving testimony. Now Amtrak and the carriers are in board-mandated arbitration.
“We had hoped to have the train operational by January this year,” Magliari said. “Now we hope for January next year.”
In a recent filing with the Federal Board of Directors, Amrak wrote, “Amrak’s additional analysis confirms that there will be no undue disruption to Gulf Coast service freight traffic.”
Amtrak wrote that the carrier’s “arguments to the contrary are unfounded” and that the impact on freight routes and supply chain issues are “greatly exaggerated.”
In June, CSX told Mississippi Today that it looked forward to working with a mediator to reach a “reasonable and amicable resolution.”
The company has said that further studies into train traffic are needed to ensure the corridor can accommodate passenger trains without affecting freight traffic. That’s something Alabama officials worried about the potential impact on the Port of Mobile’s businesses have also warned.
What comes next is a waiting game, but Amtrak leaders say they’ll be ready.
The new platform construction is the first phase of a longer plan, according to Amtrak. In a second phase, the stations will be better updated when the planned route is in operation for two to three years.
Ultimately, Amtrak, the Southern Rail Commission, and the Biden administration are all hoping to add Baton Rouge to the route.
“But first we need Mobile,” Magliari said.
In November, Congress approved $22 billion for Amtrak as part of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. The passenger rail provider has said it will expand across the country, adding up to 39 corridor routes and up to 166 cities by 2035.
Railroad experts have been closely watching the Gulf Coast case with the Surface Transportation Board as it could set a precedent for Amtrak’s ability to expand its routes nationwide.
The proposed route would have two trains daily, morning and evening, between Mobile and New Orleans. It would stop at Bay St. Louis, Pascagoula, Gulfport, and Biloxi.
“You’ve heard an exciting vision once this project is complete of touring all these wonderful cities along the Gulf Coast,” Trottenberg said Monday. “There is still a lot to do, (we) are still working through the process, but I can say from the perspective of the Biden administration: We have great confidence that we will be able to get passenger rails again in this corridor.”
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