Wicker Sees Progress in Restoring Gulf Coast Rail

New Award Moves the Process Forward

June 24, 2019

The return of passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi is one step closer to reality. At the start of June, the Federal Railroad Administration announced a $33 million grant to restore the unused line. Combined with funds from Amtrak, Mississippi, and neighboring states, this development would connect New Orleans, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, Pascagoula, and Mobile. It would also tie these cities to the two other long-distance Amtrak routes in the Magnolia State that run north-south.

Passenger trains brought riders across the Gulf Coast for decades until Hurricane Katrina made landfall 14 years ago. That long history was ended abruptly by the storm. Today’s absence of passenger trains reminds the area that, though communities have made enormous strides to rebuild, recovery is not complete.

The population of the states along the Gulf Coast is expected to grow by as many as 10 million people over the next 35 years. The new service would create jobs, an alternative to crowded highways, and a better quality of life while supporting regional tourism. As our state rises to meet growing demands for both increased freight and passenger services, I am glad to see a welcome investment in Mississippi’s future.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s decision moves an ongoing effort forward. In 2010, mayors, businesses, and community organizations from Louisiana to Florida began discussions about how to restore and improve passenger rail. In 2015, I worked with the late Senator Thad Cochran to form the Gulf Coast Working Group and build on those efforts. We brought together Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Southern Rail Commission, and freight rail partners to find potential solutions and revive this lost fixture of the region.

 A Big Economic Win

By examining existing rail infrastructure, data from other Amtrak services, and all of the available proposals, the Gulf Coast Working Group came to a better understanding of how restored passenger rail and better freight service would benefit the entire area and what would be required to make them happen.

The Trent Lott Center for Economic Development at the University of Southern Mississippi performed a thorough study of the statewide impact of bringing back passenger rail. The results were definitive. The center found that passenger rail would transport around 100,000 riders annually and, with a moderate increase in tourism, bring in $282.58 million in economic growth every year. The same study reported that the renewed economic activity would yield additional tax revenue for the State of Mississippi, Harrison County, Hancock County, and Jackson County totaling nearly $20 million. In other words, an investment today would yield enormous benefits for years to come.

Realizing Mississippi’s Potential 

One of the advantages of this detailed approach is that those involved now know not only how to bring back passenger rail service, but also how to improve on what was offered pre-Katrina. The restored line would offer more on-time departures with two trains operating during daytime hours – not late at night – along the proposed route. This would attract more customers than ever before.

The Gulf Coast’s recovery since Katrina is a testament to the vitality and potential of the region. Restored passenger rail is a missing piece that would give Mississippians more choices and provide visitors another opportunity to experience everything our state has to offer.