Talk of the Town - February 2021
- by Dena Temple
As the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg appreciated the value of passenger rail service to the workforce of his city, and he fought for Federal dollars to build new tracks on lines that serve his city’s commuters. He calls himself ‘the second biggest passenger rail enthusiast’ in the administration, right behind President “Amtrak Joe” Biden, who commuted by train to the U.S. Senate daily from his home in Delaware.
Now, as Secretary of Transportation for the new administration, Buttigieg is taking an interest in restoring passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, which will serve Bay St. Louis and other cities along the Gulf Coast. Passenger train service, which used to serve travelers from New Orleans east to Jacksonville, has not run since Hurricane Katrina.
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Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, who chaired the confirmation hearing for Secretary Buttigieg, invited Buttigieg to inspect the Gulf Coast train route from New Orleans through the Mississippi Gulf Coast and into Mobile. Buttigieg replied, “Thank you for the invitation, Chairman. I would love the opportunity.” And just like that, “Secretary Pete” committed his support to the project and our region!
Gulf Coast residents are hopeful this will help jump-start progress on this project. Locals were excited back in 2016, when then-Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg participated in an inspection tour. Photos taken the day of the tour show the cheering Bay residents greeting Feinberg at the depot, including the high school band.
After Ms. Feinberg’s visit, it may have seemed like progress on the project slowed, but insiders explained that the work behind the scenes never stopped.
In 2018, $33 million was earmarked for improvements to infrastructure to make this passenger rail line possible. In addition, individual cities along the line each committed funds to make improvements to their railroad stations, primarily to make them ADA-compliant, and each has received matching funds from the state. All the proposed city-stops have existing train platforms except Pascagoula, which will construct a new station. Bay St. Louis’s proposal includes plans to improve the surrounding grounds and add parking, in addition to the mandated improvements.
Bay St. Louis resident Kay Kell, who is the longest serving member of the Southern Rail Commission, has been championing the Gulf Coast passenger rail project from the beginning – and she knows how important this could be for Bay St. Louis and other Gulf Coast cities. “Making the Mississippi Gulf Coast more accessible to people in the cities – both New Orleans and Mobile – will open up the area to more visitors,” she said.
“Today,” she said, “we are closer than ever to making that a reality.”
Knox Ross, who serves as secretary and treasurer for the Southern Rail Commission, is also invested in the success of this project. “Senator Wicker is anxious to get this done,” he said, “and the new ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Senator Maria Cantwell, is also on the same page. This will be Amtrak’s first project of its type, and we want to make sure we get this right.”
Amtrak’s plan, Knox explained, is to provide passenger service to cities not served by air. Right now, the only way to reach those regions is by car, but passenger rail service can bring “rail tourism” to underserved areas.
Mr. Ross explains, “Trains not only bring in visitors, they make it so much more convenient to live in our coastal communities. Commuting is much simpler, and there are fewer cars on the road. This improves the marketability of our Gulf Coast communities and increases property values.”
Kay Kell hopes that the completion of the survey, and an agreement between Amtrak and the freight lines, will mark the last of the delays and the beginning of the necessary improvements. In the meantime, plans are moving forward for an inspection tour with the new Secretary of Transportation.
“It will take a while to organize,” said Kay. “We are already working to set up a trip to remember, both for each community and for the guests.”
She continued, “In 2016, each city tried to outdo the others – bigger flags, bigger crowds.” She leaned forward and confided, “Bay St. Louis will be pulling out all the stops. The other towns had better up their game!”
Kay says she is not retiring from the Southern Rail Commission until this train runs. “I want to see this through,” she stated, “and I can’t wait to see the first train pull up at the Depot. When it pulls away from the station, I’ll be on it.”