Happening Now

STB’s Stern Message on Gulf Coast: Tick-Tock

March 1, 2024

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

A clearly frustrated Surface Transportation Board this week ordered all the parties involved in the tussle over restarting Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile to file written clarifications by March 15 over the status of Federal grants, environmental reviews, and Amtrak’s land-use agreement with Mobile.

STB members raised a host of very pointed questions about these issues during a February 14th status hearing, challenging everyone concerned over the secrecy of the four-party agreement to restore service, the seemingly leisurely pace at which work is proceeding, finger-pointing over who is responsible for environmental review delays, and the lack of a completed operating agreement between Alabama and Amtrak.

The Board’s February 26 order directs the four parties – Norfolk Southern, CSX, Amtrak, and the Port of Alabama – to file a joint status report addressing when they expect their CRISI grant agreement ($178 million awarded last year) to be finalized, as well as reporting on the status of environmental reviews related to the Mobile Station Track Project.

Here STB was especially pointed, insisting that the parties report on the station reviews, plus “any other ongoing NEPA review related to the CRISI Grant Agreement or any other federal funding.” STB wants reports on “each review process by project,” including dates on which Amtrak submitted its environmental data to the Federal Railroad Administration, the dates on which FRA responded, and the dates on which Amtrak might have supplied any supplemental answers.

STB also wants the parties to specify whether they anticipate or have already been told that any of the projects is eligible for Categorical Exclusion from the full-bore NEPA environmental review process, as well as other environmental and historical property regulations.

The Board put the entire Gulf Coast proceeding in abeyance when the four parties came forward with their confidential settlement two years ago but held the docket (FD 36496) open in case a proceeding had to be revived. Now, STB is putting them on notice that not only do they expect a detailed status report by March 15th, but they want to see evidence of genuine progress.

“If the Parties have not notified the Board by May 1, 2024, that their settlement has been fully implemented and requested dismissal of this proceeding, and if the Board has not yet otherwise ordered additional actions, the Parties must file an additional status report on that date with an update on the information described above,” STB said in its order.

STB delivered a stern message this week: the clock is ticking.