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Mobile to decide key issue on Amtrak future on Gulf Coast

City leaders are preparing to decide a key issue in restoring passenger train service along the northern Gulf Coast, where Amtrak hasn’t operated regularly since Hurricane Katrina.

Council members are scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to commit as much as $3 million over three years to operate Amtrak trains through the city, al.com reported.

Katrina badly damaged rail lines in 2005, and Amtrak hasn’t resumed regular east-west service since then. Although Mississippi and Louisiana already have dedicated money toward the project to restart trains, Alabama has been a holdup, partly because officials at Alabama’s main seaport in Mobile worry passenger trains could interfere with freight traffic.

Mobile’s commitment of money to match federal funding wouldn’t be needed until 2023, the year service connecting New Orleans to Mobile could restart. The city faces a deadline of Jan. 6 for a decision, with the vote set on New Year’s Eve.

“This investment is totally an offset for operational costs,” said Wiley Blankenship, chief executive of the Coastal Alabama Partnership and chairman of the 21-member Southern Rail Commission. “It’s Mobile’s decision to make.”

City Council President Levon Manzie said the financial responsibility for the project remains a concern for city officials. But, he said, the “concept of a train service” connecting Mobile to New Orleans remains appealing.

He also said the commitments toward operations and capital improvements made in Mississippi and Louisiana are a factor. The New Orleans-to-Mobile route would include four stops in Mississippi: Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula.

“The notion that there would be coastal train service from New Orleans to coastal Mississippi and not include Mobile, I just think that it’s untenable,” Manzie said. “We need to be a part of this service.”

Even with a commitment by the city, an additional $2.2 million will be needed from an Alabama-based source to finance capital improvements between the Mississippi line and Mobile. That money would be matched with Alabama’s portion of a $33 million federal grant awarded in June.

Also, another $2.5 million could be required to finance the construction of a side track that would connect the main rail line to a future, $3 million train station at the city’s new downtown airport, Brookley Aeroplex.

It’s unclear how those investments would be funded. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey hasn’t expressed much interest in backing the project, which Alabama State Docks officials fear could hamper freight service to the port.

Alabama remains the lone holdout on dedicating funding for the project.

Mississippi has already committed $15 million, and Louisiana has promised $10 million to match federal funding. Both states are also required finance $3 million each on operations.

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