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Passenger rail study continues

Consultant says could be 2 decades before plan a reality

News Staff Writer

Prior to the April 30 public meeting held in Atmore on a study to determine whether the return of passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast is a feasible plan, Brian Smart said the meeting would be different from the first such meeting, held here in November.
Smart, who is leading the study team from global consulting firm AECOM on behalf of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, was right.
On a rainy November 2018 night, 15 people — including a state senator, a state representative, city officials, county commissioners, a board of education member and a former member of the Southern Rail Commission — showed up to hear the preliminary assessment and parameters of the study.
On April 30, there were no officials on hand as the focus shifted to Phase II, passenger service between Montgomery and Mobile. Just one hearty soul, a Mobile man on the way home from his job at the Poarch Creek Indians reservation, showed up. Ironically, the group had conducted a similar meeting the previous night in Mobile, and no member of the public showed.
But Smart was stoic, pointing out that attendance (or lack of it) at the series of public meetings wasn’t a true indicator of interest or disinterest in the project.
“It’s not wasting our time, even if just one person comes,” he explained. “We’re fine with that. Overall, people are learning about projects like this in different ways now, mainly through our website or social media. They still care about the project; they just go find the information in other ways.
“When we did our most recent Facebook posting, we allowed people to share it. We created an event, sort of a calendar reminder, and we got a lot of response. We’re getting a lot more of that. I haven’t looked to see how many re-tweets we had on Twitter, but we’ve had a lot of activity there.”
Asked to reveal the main question he would ask if he were an audience member, Smart said he would be interested in learning about the timeline, which he admitted would be a lot longer than most people envisioned.
“This is one of many studies that have to take place for a project like this to move forward and get implemented,” he said. “We will probably have our final report out in October and submit it to the United States Rail Commission, and we’re probably looking at around 10 to 15 years after we conclude this before it happens. There’s a lot that goes on.”
Smart pointed out that a long to-do list remains before a train full of passengers pulls into the station at Atmore, Montgomery, Mobile or anywhere else along the project corridor.
“There’s the preliminary engineering, then the environmental review process, then the final design,” he said. “Then you have to secure funding, engage the public and the stakeholders, and refine it, make it something the majority of the folks along the corridor want.”
He said all that would have to be done before construction even started on the new rail line.
“Given this corridor, the construction itself could approach another 10 years,” he said. “Then there’s the testing phase, running a train without passengers to make sure it’s going to work.”
Still, as long as there’s public interest and public funds to study the feasibility of such a project, he and his crew would continue to join ADECA personnel in the solicitation of input and advice.
“The public involvement and input will continue throughout the process,” Smart said. “It will continue until we have the final sign-off from the federal rail commission.”
According to information provided by ADECA, the estimated cost of the project is $1.3 billion, if the CSX Corridor is chosen; the cost will jump to approximately $9.5 billion if the new line is built along the Interstate 65 corridor.
For more information on the project, those interested may contact Kathleen Rasmussen at kathleen.rasmussen@adeca.alabama.gov or visit the ADECA website.