When transportation equals economics

No one expected the crowds. No one.

But there they were. Hundreds upon hundreds of folks who had come out to their train stations along the Gulf Coast to welcome a train, a special train, a train that had been missing from their communities for over 10 years.

This train was full of national, state and local politicians, government officials, Amtrak officials, mayors, county commissioners, city council members, business representatives, chambers of commerce staffers, members of Congress and even one U.S. Senator, Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi. Yes, you heard correctly, a Republican. Really.

The train had left New Orleans at nine on the dot. Its mission was to carry all of these dignitaries and advocates on a journey to measure the desire of local folks to have a passenger train once again serve their communities.

Our first stop, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, is a town of about 11,000. As the train rolled in, we were greeted by what seemed like most of the city’s population, along with cheerleaders, a high school marching band, people dressed for Mardi Gras, city and county officials and hundreds of just plain folks who were there to say, we want…we NEED our train back!

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Every town after that tried to one-up the one before. Enormous 50-foot American flags were suspended from ladder trucks. One town put two pumpers on either side of the tracks to form a water arch for our train. Hundreds lined the tracks, even where the train did not stop, with signs saying “Welcome! We are so glad you’re here!” and “When’s the next train?

But so what? Why did these cities and towns want a train, anyway? Until the devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 ended it, these Gulf Coast communities had been served – if a three-day-a-week train that was chronically late is entitled to that verb – by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited. By the time Katrina blew away the tracks and bridges, the Sunset had been running that route for 22 years.

It was America’s first true transcontinental train, but it was plagued with scheduling and equipment problems. Thanks usually to delays on the western part of the run, lateness was chronic; there was even one time when the train was 24 hours behind schedule. So when Katrina forced Amtrak to annul the Sunset east of New Orleans, they were not in any particular hurry to bring it back.

However, the communities on the Gulf Coast thought otherwise. Rebuilding stations that had been totally destroyed and renovating damaged ones was a top priority for these small cities. In spite of the limited service they had before the storm, they wanted to keep their rail connections. It took the CSX railroad five months and $300 million to rebuild the 40 miles of track and score of bridges that were gone. Within a year, most of the affected communities had their stations ready for Amtrak. But Amtrak was not ready, and so they waited.

It took an independent organization, the Southern Rail Commission, to get the ball rolling. This Commission, known as the SRC, is made up of representatives from the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana who are appointed by their state’s governors. It is tasked with restoring passenger rail throughout the South.

Florida and Georgia have standing invitations to be part of the Commission; Florida is now taking the steps it needs to take to join. Georgia, on the other hand, has refused to be part of it, possible because our leaders are worried that the SRC might actually get some trains running or something, which of course is some kind of Democrat — if not actually Communist — plot to make us give up our automobiles. After all, in Georgia the only allowable answer for all that ails us is more and wider roads.

The SRC is not stopping its efforts with a Gulf Coast train. In addition to planning a new service from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, they are homing in on another new service that would be accessible from Georgia: splitting the daily New York-Atlanta-New Orleans Crescent in Meridian, Mississippi and sending half of the train on to Dallas, Texas.

But to do that, the SRC needs Georgia’s support, especially its political muscle in Washington. Georgia should join the SRC, but not through our DOT. Hopeful statements and occasional studies to the contrary, GDOT has no interest in rail, or really in any other mode that is not a road. If Georgia is to join the SRC, it should be through our Georgia Department of Economic Development, because, as the people on the Gulf Coast know, passenger trains can be engines of economic growth and success.

Just ask them. They’ll tell you.

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