Efforts to repair approximately 60 miles of Meridian Southern Railways line is essential to the economic well being of East Mississippi, leaders say.
Toward that end they are applying for $14.4 million in loans and grants beginning with a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, according to Art Miller, a consultant hired by the Wayne County Economic Development District to work on the project.
“The human part of this story is saving jobs,” he said. “This rail line is a precious resource and we must see that it remains available to this part of the state.”
Miller said he did a rail corridor feasibility study to evaluate the prospect of a new railroad to be built between Waynesboro and a Gulf Coast port. The Pascagoula Port emerged as the most viable port due to a rail line that runs from there up to Lucedale. However, out of this study came the more urgent viability of repairing the existing rail line that runs from Meridian through Clark and Wayne counties.
“That line is the victim of 30 years of deferred maintenance and has 71 threatened bridges,” he said. “The result is a rail line with a maximum speed of only 10 miles per hour. It’s still operated and meets minimal federal regulations, but it just isn’t very efficient.”
Long time advocate of railroads and former federal railroad administrator Gil Carmichael of Meridian said the $14 million should be adequate to bring the track up to speed.
“If they do their politics well, they will get the money,” he said. “Sen. Thad Cochran will be the chairman of the senate appropriations committee and others are also helping.”
He says the tracks have been a victim of neglect due to years of thinking that trucks and highways could solve everything. Lots of railroads were built in the early 1900s when roads were mostly unpaved and truck freight was not as lucrative. With rising gasoline costs and the increasing costs of building highways, he believes industry will again turn to railroads.
“Railroads are extremely efficient and can be almost non polluting and environmentally benign,” he said. “One rail car can take one ton of grain nine times farther than a truck can on the same element of fuel and one train replaces 280 trucks. Rail cars can also double stack. We will see the use of rails rise in this century.”
Carmichael points out that highways are not lasting long enough and that trucks would rather haul short distances to save on fuel costs.
The first grant application should be complete and ready to submit in 30 days and is just one piece of the total package needed, said Miller. There is a $1.2 million bond bill awaiting passage by the Legislature and the railroad owners have stepped up to the plate with $580,000. The rail line and adjoining land are privately owned and the terminals are owned by government entities.
“This project is eligible for grants and we will continue to look for avenues of funding,” he added. “We’re looking for approximately $10 million to fix the main line.”
Carmichael, currently serving as chairman of the Institute of Intermodal Transportation at the University of Denver, said this rail line is vital to East Mississippi and is the economic spine. The Meridian Southern carries lumber and other forest products, chickens and grain through this part of the state. Rail cars haul grain for the chickens to the area and carry forest products out.
“If they don’t get this loan and improve this rail line, small cities can hang it up,” he said. “Waynesboro will shut down because the chicken industry is huge there and you can’t put enough trucks on the road to bring in enough food for those chickens.”
He points out that East Mississippi ships $150 million to $160 million worth of frozen chickens to Mexico every year where dark meat is preferred instead of white meat.
The president of the Wayne County Board of Supervisors, Fred Andrews, dittos the importance of upgrading the railroad tracks in his county.
“It will kill us if something is not done. We have two big industries here that depend on it,” he said. “I don’t know how they can survive without improvements and if they went down, it would have a very negative impact on the economy here.”
The two large industries, Hood Lumber and Marshall Durbin Poultry plant, employ around 2,000 people and rely heavily on incoming and outgoing rail shipments.
In Clarke County, board of supervisors president Paul Mosley said the railroad line is needed and is an asset in recruiting new industry.
“The first two things they ask are, ‘Do you have access to interstate highways?’ and ‘Do you have a railroad,’” he said. “We’re okay with highways with I-59 on the west side and four-lane U.S. 45 on the east side. Most of our railroad spurs are in good shape, but it’s the main line that’s the problem.”
Clarke County, population 19,600, lost 2,000 jobs in the past two to two-and-a-half years. Mosley said there are still some plants operating and two of those, a box-making plant and Southwood Doors, rely on the railroad a lot.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.