The U.S. Department of Transportation has pledged to spend up to $33 million to re-establish passenger rail service from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., a route that carried travelers for more than a century before Hurricane Katrina devastated infrastructure throughout the region.
The grant is expected to cover almost half of the infrastructure cost. Louisiana’s share of the cost is about $10 million, primarily in-kind contributions consisting of previously planned rail improvements, said John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and a member of the Southern Rail Commission, which applied for and received the grant.
Operational costs, which will depend partly on fares, are unknown. Spain said the federal government will cover 80 percent of the operating costs the first year, then 60 percent the year after and 40 percent the year after that, which allows time to build ridership.
The service, making two round trips per day, would be expected to start in about two years.
“These investments in intercity passenger and freight rail will benefit surrounding communities, make grade crossings safer and improve service reliability,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao in a prepared statement.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy said the service connected New Orleans and Mobile from 1894 until Katrina made landfall in 2005. He thanked the Trump administration for “making Gulf Coast travel easier and more efficient.”
“This will bring more tourists to Louisiana and add to the charm of visiting our state,” Cassidy said.
Officials with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development were unavailable for comment Thursday. Along with tourists, Spain expects the route to serve people who live in the New Orleans area but work elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, and vice versa.
“In spite of the state’s challenges with funding infrastructure, I am pleased that the US Department of Transportation shares our vision to connect the super-region by advancing this mobility solution,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said, as quoted in a statement shared by the Southern Rail Commission. “A small investment by the state is a seed that is being multiplied by our federal partners, Mississippi, and Alabama. It will produce benefits for Louisiana, our workforce, and the state’s economy.”
Mississippi officials, the city of Mobile, Amtrak and private partners have pledged financial support. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey reportedly has expressed concerns about the cost and the potential impact on the Port of Mobile.
“I think Alabama will come on board,” Spain said.
Spain says the long-sought Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans passenger service still could be in play for federal funding, though the project likely would require a similar dollar-for-dollar match.