Happening Now

Alabama Gov. Softens On Gulf Coast Financial Support

May 31, 2024

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

We got some good news this week when it emerged that Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R), who had been deeply opposed to restoring Amtrak service through Mobile in part because of the vocal opposition of the politically and economically powerful Port of Alabama, has potentially warmed to at least talking about state support.

That’s important and very welcome, given that the new train between New Orleans and Mobile would have to be a state-supported train under the present, arbitrary rule that trains of less than 750 miles are the financial responsibility of states rather than the Federal government.

John Sharp, the excellent veteran local reporter keeping a close eye on Gulf developments, wrote this week that Ivey is in talks with Mobile officials, including the Mayor, about a possible state commitment on this project, but she is also looking forward to the results of a revised economic benefits analysis from the Southern Rail Commission expected in the next 30 days that could further bolster the economic case for investing in passenger rail. This would update work SRC first published in 2020.

“It goes beyond Mobile,” said Toby Bennington, director of planning and development with the City of Anniston and one of the Alabama representatives on the SRC. “It is a good time to communicate and start talking about what the service will mean for the state.”

Sharp points out that the states of Mississippi ($14 million) and Louisiana ($6 million) are contributing money to support capital improvements along a rail line between New Orleans and Mobile, as well as their own $3.048 million operating shares, but the State of Alabama is doing neither. Instead, Mobile’s residents are being asked to come up with what would normally be the state’s share, and that’s causing political problems on the Mobile City Council.

Recall that it will take a “Yes” vote from five of the seven City Council members to move this project forward. Some assurances from the Governor to Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson might be in the offing, and that would clear a real obstacle to restoring service before the end of this year.

Meanwhile Alabama is already benefiting, despite at this stage putting no money of its own into the pot. Thanks to a $178.8 million CRISI grant from the Federal Railroad Administration, Mobile County alone would see $72 million in rail-related capital improvements – improvements that will include the Port, which reversed its opposition under the terms of a settlement worked out last year among Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Port officials.

And none of that counts the many tens of millions of dollars in annual benefits Alabama will see from increased tourism, downtown spending, restaurants, shopping, payroll support, and higher tax revenues.

Someday when Americans throughout the U.S. Southeast have made enjoying Amtrak Gulf Coast service routine, business- and management-school professors will probably use the decades-long drama surrounding bringing back this service as a case study about how many absurd obstacles exist to starting, keeping, and growing passenger rail. Among the most absurd, in our view, is the onerous requirement for states to cover costs for routes under 750 miles in length.

(John Sharp’s AL.com reporting is behind a paywall, but can be purchased here.)