Other Opinions

F. CLIFF KIRKLAND: Passenger rail service would benefit Mississippi Coast

The Sun Herald's Feb. 17 editorial "Before we get on board the train, we need answers" would have been better titled "Before we wrote this, we should have made certain of the facts."

The Sun Herald made a serious error in stating "the annual cost to the state would be $9.49 million."

At this point, it's unknown whether the funding for the desired service will be from federal, state or private dollars, or some combination thereof. If not federally or privately funded, the service at the least would be equally subsidized by the participating states -- not singularly by the state of Mississippi as the editorial stated.

Your editorial asserts that tax dollars of any origin might best be utilized elsewhere rather than on an undependable and risky investment in passenger rail service across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. That is a viewpoint worth debating.

According to the editorial, previous Amtrak service in this area proved unsuccessful because of poor on-time performance by the provider. While that damning point seems conclusive in black-and-white logic, it is far from a complete picture and assumes, erroneously, that the new service would be the same as the old one. The Sunset Limited was troubled by repeated schedule delays, but that had more to do with the fact that it traveled between Los Angeles and New Orleans. The proposed service path for the new line is New Orleans to Orlando. Amtrak's current service in parts of that corridor performs in the upper 80th percentile for on-time efficiency, with delays averaging about 15 minutes instead of the multiple hours racked up by the Sunset Limited.

Additionally, the Sunset Limited operated three times a week. The new service would be daily, and could include more than one train running daily between New Orleans and Mobile. Studies indicate the potential for sustainable success is much greater with daily service, especially with multiple trains.

The potential benefits to the Mississippi Coast are many, beginning with tourism and economic development. Passenger rail service in other parts of the country provides much more than commuter convenience. It has become an alternative transportation source that is more convenient, affordable and enjoyable than planes and automobiles.

Major tourism centers are fed by rail services that increase visitation, which in turn spurs population and entrepreneurial growth. New Orleans is one of the most visited cities in the country. Consider the possibilities of tapping into that market with daily side trips to the Mississippi Coast, where tourists can sample our history, our beaches, our outdoor recreation and our resorts. Consider the benefits of expanding our drive-in casino market with train service.

The possibilities are enormous, but a clear plan for success and sustainability is paramount. For that very purpose, a Work Group was formed by the Federal Railway Administration to provide independent due diligence and to make recommendations for establishing this new service across the mid-Gulf South. This group was formed at the direction of Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker.

The first meeting of the Work Group was held in New Orleans this month, and included representatives of the states and municipalities involved, transportation planners, the Southern Rail Commission, Amtrak and CSX. The meeting was chaired by Federal Railway Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg. The next meeting will be held in Biloxi in March.

It is the responsibility of this group to ultimately recommend the best service option after identifying and addressing all contingent issues and potential funding sources, including private investment. It is a challenging task underscored by an ambitious deadline just seven months away.

There have been many studies completed in recent years about the viability of restoring passenger rail service across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Those studies and their recommendations will be scrutinized by the Work Group, which will produce a workable and sustainable plan. A funding mechanism will be identified, but it won't come with any guarantees.

As for the editorial's stance that taxpayer dollars shouldn't be used to provide this new service, aren't taxpayer dollars best utilized to provide service to the taxpayer? Would not increased visitation across our region be of benefit to our tourism amenities, our retail operators and our tax collections? Would not daily passenger rail service ease the pressure on our overburdened roadways and help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels? Would not that same service help address some of the transportation challenges the target area will face over the next 20 years if predictions of a population increase of 10 million people proves accurate? Is rail service less deserving of taxpayer support than public airports, seaports and bus systems? Interstate highways are built and maintained by public tax dollars. Rail service should be an integral part of the multi-modal national, state and local tax-supported transportation system that is so essential to a sustainable economy.

Most everyone agrees that we need more transportation options on the Mississippi Coast if we are to grow as a tourism market with public transportation options affordable for all levels of the workforce. Most everyone except the Sun Herald, apparently.

F. Cliff Kirkland, the chief civic innovation and development officer for the city of Biloxi, is a member of the Federal Railway Administration's Work Group studying the proposed Amtrak return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.