Amtrak’s Gulf Coast revitalization: What’s on the line
Wednesday, February 08, 2017
Recently, Republicans in Congress have jumped on board with plans to return Amtrak passenger rail to the Gulf Coast, which had been suffering losses even before Hurricane Katrina barreled through with the death blow to the rail line. If brought to fruition, the passenger rail system could help revitalize the region, while avoiding further economic deterioration that reports show can follow a loss of rail access.
Gulf Coast disconnected
Amtrak's Gulf Coast line, which stretched from New Orleans to Jacksonville through the southeastern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, was dealt a violent end due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The idea of reconnecting these southern rural areas hinges on the hope that the passenger rail line can stimulate the surrounding local economies. This is a benefit Amtrak has continuously touted when validating its need for federal funds.
Republican lawmakers, on the other hand, have historically been quick to dismiss any notion of a federally-assisted expansion for Amtrak. It wasn't until the election of President Donald Trump — who has expressed his intentions toward focusing on infrastructure — that they've seemed to jump on board.
According to Politico, "local and state Republican leaders along the Gulf Coast are promoting a revived Amtrak route as a tool for commerce and jobs. That argument mirrors the pro-transportation message of President-elect Donald Trump, who is proposing a nationwide $1 trillion infrastructure upgrade that he says would make the nation's roads, bridges, airports and railroads 'second to none.'"
Former Amtrak board chair and former Republican mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, John Robert Smith noted that removing passenger rail from far-out, disconnected areas can be disastrous. "You're going to depopulate rural communities if you can't connect them to the larger economy," he noted.
Reviving the rail line would be an important test for Amtrak as the Gulf Coast line hadn't been doing well even before Katrina. In fact, outside of the heavily populated Northeast Corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington, D.C., and carries many federal employees and workers, the company has been hard pressed to prove its worth.
If the line can prove to be successful to some degree, it will calm lawmaker nerves about funding appropriations, which have always been a point of contention. If the line continues to underperform, Amtrak may lose its opportunity to entrench itself in a region that could explode in population soon.
In a 2009 study performed by the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, the social and economic impacts of light and commuter rail was examined.
The study found that providing access to rail "generally results in an increase in property values around station areas. ... Rail serves as a catalyst to renewal of communities in proximity to rail since the increased accessibility of those areas makes them more attractive." The economic impact of rail "are strongest in station areas, as access to rail increases property value on nearby property."
While the benefits of passenger rail — specifically Amtrak — to sparse communities and rural regions tend to center around intercity travel, there are other ways the service benefits economically.
For example, Amtrak is also a "leading provider of passenger rail services, including engineers, train crews, dispatching, and other operational support to transit and commuter rail agencies around the country. Furthermore, Amtrak operates commuter rail services on behalf of three regional rail authorities — the Maryland Area Regional Commuter, or MARC; Shore Line East in Connecticut; and Metrolink in the Los Angeles region."
Rural communities along the Southwest Chief line understand the fear that comes with the possibility of losing Amtrak connection all too well. In 2014, officials announced that Amtrak was considering rerouting a historic line running between Chicago and Los Angeles due to approximately $200 million needed in repairs to the track, which ran through states such as Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico.
Fortunately, following frenzied fundraising, some federal grant applications and some protests from affected small rural towns, more than $50 million was raised in efforts to keep the train line just where it was, "thanks to state and local matching efforts, and BNSF [agreeing] to cover much of the maintenance costs."
The Southwest Chief was therefore allowed to continue along its route. This averted disaster for the communities that not only depend on the rail for economic benefit, but also for a connection to the outside world for their citizenry.
This nightmare scenario, while averted for the Southwest Chief line, was all too real for Amtrak's Gulf Coast, which has been effectively cut off after the line went dark.
Although the benefits for areas when passenger rail comes to town seem to be concrete, it is by no means an open-and-shut case. Despite recent upticks in ridership, the biggest hurdle for Amtrak remains lack of proper funding for maintenance and future system growth and expansion.
According to a report by Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress, "since beginning operations in 1971, Amtrak has received, in inflation-adjusted terms, just $70 billion in total federal funding. To put this in perspective, since 2008, Congress has backfilled the Highway Trust Fund with $65 billion in general fund revenues to avoid insolvency. In just seven years, Congress has provided almost as much general fund support for highways as Amtrak has received in 45 years of operations. Moreover, when revenues rise as a result of robust ticket sales, Congress often uses this as a justification to cut federal support further."
Lack of funding has also affected Amtrak's ability to comply with safety requirements, such as the inclusion of positive train control (PTC) technology. If Congress is serious about reopening the pathway to the Gulf Coast, it's important that it acknowledges not only how important such a move can be to local economies and jobs, but also exactly what they will be required to do to make such a decision as safe as possible.
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