Sen. Thad Cochran had a parting gift for South Mississippi before he retires from the U.S. Senate on Sunday, one that could restore passenger trains from New Orleans to Mobile.
Tucked in the $1.3 trillion omnibus legislation passed by Congress to keep the federal government operating through September are grants to restore passenger rail service, particularly to areas like the Gulf Coast that once had trains but lost service.
"We have a unique opportunity Sen. Cochran and Sen. (Roger) Wicker put together for us," said Knox Ross, vice chairman of the Southern Rail Commission.
The Republican senators from Mississippi have worked to get passenger train service restored. Two years ago, Wicker rode aboard the first Amtrak train to travel across the Coast since the service was discontinued before Hurricane Katrina.
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This latest plan is for two trains a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, in each direction from Gulfport. That would let people from South Mississippi ride the train to New Orleans for a day of shopping, go to the museums in Mobile or take a train rather than a car to one of the local festivals. And residents and visitors from New Orleans and Mobile could ride to South Mississippi to visit the casinos, the aquarium or watch a Biloxi Shuckers game, said Ross.
While the plan is still to one day provide passenger trains from New Orleans to Orlando, Ross said this shorter route has advantages for South Mississippi. It would provide more control to ensure trains are on time, he said, and to add special event stops in Long Beach, Ocean Springs and Gautier — stations that aren't among the regular stops on the route.
The two-year, $20 million grant comes with the requirement of a 50 percent match. Ross said it would cost Mississippi $20 million and could be spread out over four years. The funds possibly could come from Restore Act money directed to the Coast from the BP oil spill fine.
The track and bridges are ready to go — "You could run a train right now," he said — but a second matching grant will pay for infrastructure needs for the track from New Orleans to South Mississippi.
"If we apply for it, more than likely we're going to get it," a confident Ross told the Gulf Coast Business Council on Tuesday.
"This brings the people you need to you," he told business owners, and said it also will help change the perception of South Mississippi.
Few places in the country have this kind of service, he said, such as the Amtrak Downeaster that runs between Boston and Portland, Maine. The base price for that trip is $58 for a round-trip ticket for the full route that is 2.5-hour trip each way, with 50 percent-off deals for seniors and children, multiride packages for frequent riders and other specials. The trains are wheelchair accessible and have free WiFi and a cafe.
Ross said he sees prices on a Gulf Coast line being competitive and a savings compared to the cost of gas and parking in New Orleans.