Happening Now

April Gulf Hearing to Tackle Bridges, Capital Needs

March 18, 2022

By Jim Mathews, President / CEO

The Surface Transportation Board is putting Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and the Port of Alabama on notice that during next month’s evidentiary hearings they’ll need to be prepared to address how the Coast Guard is handling the issue of movable bridges along Amtrak’s proposed Gulf Coast route, whether the CSX and N-S operating agreements figure into this dispute over new service, the legitimate capital investment needs for the route, and how the parties would split responsibility for that investment.

Despite criticism in some circles that your Association is “obsessing” on the Gulf Coast issue, we think it’s important for everyone who advocates for passenger rail in their communities to understand what’s at stake here.

DOT and the Federal Railroad Administration are gearing up to announce on May 14 how the first batches of money from the gigantic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will be spent, and the rules governing how cities, counties, states, or other authorities can compete for their share of at least $42 billion in rail investment. Depending on how the STB decides Amtrak’s Gulf Coast case and how the parties – and the Federal courts – react to that decision, the entire rail renaissance we’ve all worked for decades to make real could be stillborn.

From reading the STB’s interim decision a week ago, made public this past Monday, the Surface Transportation Board is wrestling with ordering CSX and N-S to permit Amtrak access, while simultaneously addressing the capital investment issues that may arise. This is an important split-the-baby distinction. Why? Amtrak has argued that it could start service absent any new capital investment beyond what is already committed, and that any investment which might be needed to grow service can and should come later. Plus, Amtrak argues, in any case, there are funds identified to handle it without unusual recourse.

But none of that was really the basis of Amtrak's original motion. They just wanted the Board to give a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down to order CSX and N-S to stand aside and permit Amtrak to begin service as the law allows. The Port of Alabama has hinted that because Amtrak’s original petition didn’t raise the capital question, the fact that it now must prepare materials around levels of capital spending could form the basis of an appeal on due-process grounds.

The STB, for its part, is doing a very careful job of ensuring that the evidentiary docket in this case is robust, and that the merits will be well documented. This will help insulate the STB’s eventual decision from an appeal on the merits. They’re also, in our view, doing a great job of attempting to balance everyone’s equities – recognizing the important role the Port plays in Alabama’s economy, hearing everyone’s points of view, and attempting to make rulings that will lead to a solution rather than further argument.

Yes, we’re still asking Amtrak every week about scheduling issues, workforce problems, the restoration of dining cars and sightseer lounges, prospects for new rolling stock, and all of the other hot-button issues that we have raised repeatedly over the past few months. In fact, we’ve arranged for Amtrak to brief attendees at RailNation:DC later this month on all of those issues. But try to understand that if this Gulf Coast service can be stopped in its tracks, all the other improvements we’re hoping to see could well be moot. Everyone needs to be watching every step of this very important case.