BAY ST. LOUIS — A U.S. Department of Transportation official said the Biden administration is confident passenger rail will return to the Mississippi coast during a ground-breaking ceremony for a train depot platform Monday.
Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg spoke after local leaders stuck shovels into a mound of dirt outside Bay St. Louis’s historic train depot, marking the start of construction for a new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant platform. But the Amtrak-funded platform construction is symbolic for now – the future of the passenger route that would use it is still in limbo.
Amtrak is waiting for a federal board to mediate a long-time dispute over the Gulf Coast’s capacity to host both freight and passenger rail on shared tracks. Amtrak hasn’t run a Gulf Coast route since Hurricane Katrina. Trottenberg, who was visiting from Washington, D.C., echoed Amtrak’s assertions that there’s room for passenger rail to run between Mobile and New Orleans with four stops in Mississippi.
“I think you can see by Amtrak’s commitment to get these platforms ready, they’re confident they will be running the train,” Knox Ross, with the Southern Rail Commission, said at Monday’s ceremony.
The Bay St. Louis platform is the first to begin construction among the five stations on the Gulf Coast route that will get similar updates. Each will cost around a half-million dollars, totaling about $2 million, according to Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari.
About $66 million dollars in funding has already been secured for the Amtrak-desired route, but Amtrak and freight companies CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern have been in a years-long back-and-forth with little progress.
Amtrak filed a complaint with the Surface Transportation Board last year. The federal body of transportation experts is appointed by the president to help settle railway disputes. Earlier this year, the board sat through days worth of testimonies. Now Amtrak and the freight companies are in board-mandated mediation.
“We hoped that we would have the train running by January of this year,” Magliari said. “Now, we’re hoping for by January of next year.”
In a recent filing Amrak submitted to the federal board it wrote: “Amtrak’s additional analyses confirm that there will be no unreasonable impairment to freight transportation from the Gulf Coast service.”
Amtrak wrote the freight company’s “arguments to the contrary are without merit” and impacts to freight routes and supply chain issues “greatly exaggerated.”
In June, CSX told Mississippi Today it looked forward to working with a mediator toward a “reasonable and amicable solution.”
The company has said more studies on train traffic are required to ensure the corridor can accommodate passenger trains without impeding freight business. That’s something Alabama officials have also cautioned, worried about any potential impact on the Port of Mobile’s businesses.
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. A second phase will better update the stations once the planned route has been up and running for two to three years.
Ultimately, Amtrak, the Southern Rail Commission and the Biden administration hope to see the route expand to include Baton Rouge.
“But first, we need Mobile,” Magliari said.
In November, the U.S. Congress approved $22 billion for Amtrak as part of a $1-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. The passenger rail provider has said it wants to expand across the country, adding up to 39 corridor routes and up to 166 cities by 2035.
Railroad experts have been watching the Gulf Coast case with the Surface Transportation Board closely because it could set a precedent for Amtrak’s ability to expand its routes nationwide.
The proposed route would run two trains daily in the morning and evening between Mobile and New Orleans. It would stop in Bay St. Louis, Pascagoula, Gulfport and Biloxi.
“You’ve heard an exciting vision for once this project is done to travel to all these wonderful cities along the Gulf Coast,” Trottenberg said Monday. “There is some work to do, (we’re) still working through the process, but I can say from the Biden administration’s point of view: We have great confidence we are going to get passenger rail again in this corridor.”