Passenger rail may return to our Gulf Coast

Published 7:00 am Thursday, February 25, 2016

Mississippi’s rail infrastructure could become even stronger if passenger service is restored along our Gulf Coast.
On February 18, I took an inspection trip with the Southern Rail Commission, Amtrak, and federal, state, and local officials to see what work needs to be done to reestablish a rail route that stops in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pascagoula before heading east into Alabama and Florida. The Gulf Coast has not had passenger rail service since Hurricane Katrina devastated the area more than a decade ago.
Creating Jobs, Better Quality of Life
Passenger rail could bring countless opportunities for economic growth. This is especially true if the population of states on the Gulf Coast grows by 10 million people over the next 35 years as expected. If Amtrak were an airline, it would be the fifth largest carrier in the country. Reconnecting the Gulf Coast to this massive transportation network would facilitate access to more jobs, provide residents’ with an alternative to highway traffic, and improve quality of life in the region. We want the entire country to see all the great things that the Gulf Coast has to offer, from our beautiful beaches to our vibrant culture. Passenger rail service could help make this happen.
I am optimistic about the Gulf Coast Working Group, which was authorized as part of the passenger rail legislation I sponsored with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) last year. The group is responsible for evaluating the feasibility of a Gulf Coast line between New Orleans and Florida. My legislation also created an innovative grant program for assisting applicants like the Southern Rail Commission in efforts to advance safe and dependable rail transportation. Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran was instrumental in getting this program fully funded in the 2015 spending bill.
Advancing Rail in the Delta
Major developments in passenger rail have reached other parts of our state. Last year, I was glad to see the announcement of an agreement between Quitman County officials, Amtrak, and Canadian National Rail to put a permanent Amtrak stop in Marks. Some 200,000 residents in nine counties are expected to benefit from this return of passenger rail, which has been absent from the area for 20 years. In addition, rail could have a drastic impact on tourism, offering millions of people another transportation option when visiting the Delta.
I look forward to seeing the same benefits from the Grenada Railway. I toured the line last September following its purchase by the North Central Mississippi Regional Rail Authority. Rather than accepting the line’s abandonment, local ownership has reignited the potential for economic development and job creation from Southaven to Canton.
Supporting a Win-Win Investment
I am grateful for the many leaders at the local, state, and federal levels who recognize the possibilities of passenger rail and have worked to help build a stronger system in Mississippi. In both urban and rural areas, rail can help transform our state in valuable ways, attracting business and keeping us competitive in an increasingly diversified marketplace. These investments are a win-win, boosting local economies and giving residents a means of transportation that could save time and money.

By Senator Roger Wicker

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