Gulf Coast passenger train project will get a $4.3M grant, DOT secretary announces in Biloxi

“Everywhere I go I bring money, and I’m not going to disappoint today,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Thursday at the first Coastal Region Transportation Summit at Golden Nugget Casino.

While other speakers focused on a possible East-West corridor across Harrison County and other local issues, Chao opened the federal checkbook and announced more than $21 million for infrastructure improvements in Mississippi.

That includes a $4.3 million Restoration and Enhancement grant for the Southern Rail Commission to support the return of passenger rail service from Mobile to New Orleans, through South Mississippi and $16.8 million to replace 12 bridges in rural Mississippi counties.

The $225 million in grants through the Competitive Highway Bridge Program was awarded to 20 bridge projects in 18 states, with Mississippi one of only two states to get two projects, she said.

This is the first Restoration & Enhancement Grant, and Chao said she couldn’t think of a better project than Gulf Coast passenger rail service, for which Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has worked so hard.

“His priorities are my priorities,” she said. “Whenever I see Senator Wicker, I think passenger rail.”

Wicker said the grant will be combined with other funds to put South Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana one step closer to achieving enhanced freight and passenger rail service.

“It’s going to be a huge job creator for Alabama and Mississippi,” he said of the restoration of train service that was discontinued 14 years before when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

“The bridge program grants will allow us to begin chipping away at the backlog of bridge replacements needed in Mississippi. Economic growth and basic quality of life in our state require better infrastructure,” said Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.).

Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) said that if South Mississippi can use the two pots of BP funds to come up with a partial match for federal dollars,

“Let’s maximize what we’re doing and not think about what’s good for us tomorrow but 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now, and make sure to position ourselves with solid, sound infrastructure that’s going to make us competitive and we’ll just improve our quality of life as a whole.”

Chao said the Department of Transportation has awarded $92 million to Mississippi for public transportation over the past three years, with some of those funds for the Gulfport Bus Tram Bridge that will be built over U.S. 90 at the Mississippi Aquarium.

She also noted that in July the U.S. Energy Department authorized LNG exports from the Gulf LNG project in Pascagoula, and with the completion of the Panama Canal expansion, Gulfport has become a top 20 port for containerized cargo.

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Mary Perez is the business and casino reporter for the Sun Herald and also writes about Biloxi, jobs and the new restaurants and development coming to the Coast. She is a fourth-generation journalist.