If things continue as planned, and if legislators in all the involved states loosen their purse strings and provide the needed funding, passenger rail service will return to Atmore and other areas of the Gulf Coast as early as December.
Jerry Gehman of Atmore, a member of the Southern Rail Commission who served for about two years as the city’s liaison to the commission before joining it, reported this week that the December target date is still attainable.
“We set an ambitious goal of 24 months, and we still may be able to maintain that time frame, with Amtrak service from Atmore to New Orleans and New Orleans to Baton Rouge,” Gehman said Monday (March 6). “We clearly have identified a target date and if not by December 2017, certainly by February 2018. I have strong hopes we can make that happen. Of course, anything in the world can go wrong, but that’s our target, our goal.”
Even through his optimism, Gehman readily admits that there are still a couple of obstacles that could derail the plan or send it to a sidetrack.
“The pressure is now on the railroads, and we have to get funding from the state legislatures,” he said. “Those are not easy things, but that’s where we are.”
The local man, along with SRC Chair Greg White, met last week with Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana. Edwards and Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi have each publicly expressed support of the plan to return passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has not been as strong a proponent, and with a new administration in Washington, there’s some uncertainty in that area, too.
“We have some political hills to climb,” Gehman agreed. “Right now we have at least two governors on board. What the Trump Administration does for rail infrastructure will be equally as important. Of course, in his Inaugural Address, he listed five railroad projects as part of his trillion-dollar infrastructure program. The return of rail service to the Gulf Coast was included in the five.”
The SRC member said commission representatives have already met with new Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and would try to schedule more such meetings when President Trump’s full cabinet is in place and a new director is named for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
He also revealed that Amtrak and Greyhound have entered into a joint venture that would benefit passengers whose schedules might not fit Amtrak’s.
“Say you ride the Amtrak train to Montgomery, Birmingham or New Orleans, and you want to come back the same day, but the train schedule won’t allow it,” he explained. “You can take the Amtrak-Greyhound bus. It will only stop at Amtrak kiosks, only at the points where the Amtrak trains will stop.”
Implementation of the bus service, though, is contingent upon the resumption of passenger rail service. And Gehman is unwavering in his belief that everything will soon begin to fall in place to bring the plan to fruition.
“The FRA has already signed off on it, so it’s mostly a matter of state funding,” he said. “In December (2016) we granted $2.5 million in station renovation grants, and a committee has been established to oversee the grants and make sure everybody follows through with their commitments. Mobile has to build a new station, and it has to be done this year. The funding and the agreements are in place.
“This is not just a pipe dream or boys playing with toys; this is reality.”