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Alabama balks at funding for restored coastal Amtrak service

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Alabama is balking at pledging millions of dollars to help restart passenger train service along the northern Gulf Coast for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi must commit almost $35 million altogether over three years by Thursday to be eligible for the same amount in federal funds that would enable Amtrak trains to run from New Orleans eastward to Mobile, Alabama.

Louisiana has agreed to supply about $9.5 million, while Mississippi agreed to $3 million and is considering much more, said Knox Ross of the Southern Rail Commission, which is promoting the project.

But Alabama hasn’t promised any money toward the project, he said, and time is running out.

“If we don’t do it we’ve left money on the table, which would be very unfortunate,” said Ross.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s office issued a statement saying she supports efforts to restore passenger rail service on the coast but isn’t committing state funding.

An Alabama representative on the Southern Rail Commission, Jerry Gehman, said Ivey’s words don’t do anything to move the project forward.

“That’s good for the ink and paper it’s written on. But it does nothing … to make it a reality,” said Gehman.

Amtrak suspended service east of New Orleans along the Gulf Coast after Katrina, which heavily damaged rails, crossings and other infrastructure in 2006. Ross said the current effort is the most serious one yet to revive passenger rail in the region.

Supporters see the New Orleans-to-Mobile proposal as a first step toward expanding Amtrak service elsewhere on the coast, Ross said. The proposed train would run twice a day each way, stopping at cities on the Mississippi coast, he said.

Mississippi’s costs for the project are higher than those of the other states because “that’s where the tracks are,” he said. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is considering a request for $14.7 million over three years for capital costs, but a spokesman said no decision has been made.

The project can move forward if Alabama doesn’t contribute, Ross said, and actual costs could be less. The eastbound train would simply stop at Pascagoula, Mississippi, rather than continuing into Alabama, he said.

“If we get Mississippi to commit we can move forward without Alabama,” said Ross.

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