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Gulf Coast rail corridor could foster development

The designation of a Gulf Coast high-speed rail corridor in the 1998 Federal Transportation Bill is a significant step toward developing a high speed rail system that would bring significant competitive and economic advantages to the entire area, said representatives of the Southern Rapid Rail Transit Commission.

The Gulf Coast high-speed rail corridor is one of 11 officially designated high- speed rail corridors in the U.S. The transportation bill provides $5.25 million annually for six years for feasibility studies for the rail systems.

The Gulf Coast corridor would run between Pensacola, Fla., and Houston, Texas. Future plans call for high speed rail to be extended to Jacksonville, Fla.

Kay Johnson, a member of the Southern Rapid Rail Commission and Picayune city manager, said that the designation of the Gulf Coast high-speed rail corridor doesn’t mean it will be built immediately. But it was important to get that designation as a first step. She likened it to the process of getting a new interstate highway. First, interstate highway designation must be received.

“What we are doing is getting our high-speed rail designation now,” Johnson said. “There were no highspeed rail corridors in the Deep South, so this was important. But we still have a lot of work left to do.”

Rail proponents said the development of the Gulf Coast high-speed rail corridor will aid the region’s economic activity by:

• Providing safer, more efficient transportation choices.

• Relieving congestion on crowded highway, and promoting national environmental and energy conservation concerns.

• Connecting metropolitan areas and neighboring cities along the Gulf Coast to each other and also the region’s main air passenger facilities.

• Developing a more acceptable and stress-free alternative to highway usage.

Over the past several years the Southern Rapid Rail Transit Commission, the New Orleans Aviation board and a coalition of state and local elected officials from Gulf states have forged a partnership to get the Deep South included in future high-speed rail networks.

Inclusion of the Gulf Coast corridor in the funding bill came as a surprise.

“We’re all in a state of shock that we’ve even been specifically mentioned in the bill,” said Carol Cranshaw, chairman of the Southern Rapid Rail Transit Commission. “We want this to become a reality as soon as possible.”

Cranshaw said the rail commission views the proposed new corridor as the southern perimeter of a future national network of high-speed rail corridors that ultimately will link by fast, safe and efficient high-speed rail major economic centers across the nation.

“The Gulf Coast corridor, as proposed, will establish truly multimodal trade access between the United States, South America and other existing and potential world markets as our nation confidently enters the global competition that will define international trade and commerce in the 21st century,” Cranshaw said.

The Gulf Coast was one of only three projects specifically mentioned in the funding measure. The other two are the Keystone high-speed railway corridor from New York to Philadelphia to Harrisburg and the Empire State railway corridor from New York through Albany to Buffalo. Other corridors will be selected by the Secretary of Transportation.

The Gulf Coast high-speed rail corridor would use existing rights of way owned by the CSXT, Illinois Central, Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific railroads. The use of existing alignments on the Coast would initially allow train speeds in the range of 80 to 125 mph. Higher speeds would be established incrementally, over time, based on economic feasibility and demand.

The initial development of the Gulf Coast high-speed rail corridor is proposed in two phases. Phase 1 would extend from Houston, through Baton Rouge and New Orleans to Pensacola, generally parallel to the Gulf Coast along the route of Amtrack’s Sunset Limited. The Phase II connector corridor would follow the existing route of the Amtrak Crescent between New Orleans and Birmingham, through Meridian and Tuscaloosa. This route ultimately would be extended through Atlanta, to link the Gulf Coast corridor with the existing Northeast corridor, establishing multimodal trade access between the Eastern Seaboard and South American markets.

Based on demand and cost factors, future Gulf Coast extensions are also proposed between New Orleans and Jackson, following the route of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans through Memphis to connect with the Chicago/Mid-West corridor. Another extension is planned between New Orleans/Baton Rouge and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A possible future rail connection may also be developed through the area commonly referred to as the Sun Belt Route, which would connect Atlanta to Dallas through Birmingham/Monroe/ Shreveport/Bossier City. Plans to provide Amtrak rail service between Shreveport/Bossier City and Dallas are being discussed.

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