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Amtrak passenger trains inch closer to the Coast. Here's what research says it will bring.

The Amtrak Inspection Train arrives in Gulfport on Feb. 18, 2016. The train ride began in New Orleans, making stops at Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi Pascagoula before heading to Alabama and Florida.
The Amtrak Inspection Train arrives in Gulfport on Feb. 18, 2016. The train ride began in New Orleans, making stops at Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi Pascagoula before heading to Alabama and Florida. ttisbell@sunherald.com File

For years, Coast, state and federal officials have talked about the boost passenger rail service would bring to the Coast economy. Now they have some evidence to back their optimism up.

Research led by University of Southern Mississippi Professor Yuanyuan Zhang suggests the $14 million the state would need to invest in the proposal, a fraction of the total cost, would bring a return on investment of $64 million to $525 million annually.

In Harrison County alone, a 5 percent increase in visitors, the most likely scenario, would bring about $92 million more in spending and income.

"They're going to bring them right to your front door," said Knox Ross, Southern Rail Commission vice chairman, of the twice-daily passenger service proposed between New Orleans and Mobile. He hopes it will be the first leg of a much larger Amtrak expansion in the Gulf South. Beyond that front door is the revitalized Gulfport downtown and its bars, restaurants and shops. The trains also would stop in Bay St. Louis, Biloxi and Pascagoula.

Ross was at the Gulfport depot Monday to reveal the USM study and urge the people, businesses and county governments along the Coast to write Gov. Phil Bryant, urging him to provide the final piece of financing — $14 million. That would match a $50 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement Grant to build sidings and make other improvements to the CSX railroad to make it safer for CSX freight trains and passenger trains to share the tracks.

That federal grant, which is all but assured, according to Ross, has a Thursday deadline. Backers of passenger service, which would be operated by Amtrak but would bear a more Coast-centric name, hope Gov. Phil Bryant commits to spending that money by the deadline. But even if he doesn't, the grants would be available again in the next fiscal year.

Ross said Bryant has a number of options — RESTORE Act money and other money from the BP oil spill, Community Development Block Grants and Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act money that could be used for the $14 million — but he would not have to decide which bucket of money to draw from, just commit to paying it.

Mississippi Gulf Coast residents welcome Amtrak at depots in three counties during a trial run on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016.

John Robert Smith, Transportation for American chairman and a former mayor of Meridian, said passenger service is the sort of amenity younger Mississippians are looking for. It, he said, could slow the brain drain of highly educated young people and lure young people to the state.

Federal grants already are paying for renovations at the depots and the state has committed to paying 20 percent of the annual operating costs not covered by ticket sales, which Ross said would be $5 million or less. The federal government would pay 80 percent of those cost. The state Department of Transportation has agreed to pay the state share from a grant program at improving air quality by getting cars off the roads.

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