Jimmy Lyons, director and chief executive of the Alabama State Port Authority (file photo)
The head of Alabama’s fast-growing port said Thursday that he sees passenger rail as a “major disruption” to freight operations in and out of downtown Mobile.
Jimmy Lyons, CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority and the Port of Mobile, also said that restarting passenger rail from New Orleans to Orlando – with two daily stops in Mobile – doesn’t make financial sense.
“As a taxpayer, I have a significant issue with it,” said Lyons. “To spend money to build railroad stations along the route, and the upfront money and the certain loss the line would encounter, is going to cost a lot of taxpayer dollars. We have a lot of needs for our tax dollars. I just don’t see any benefit that would come anywhere close to justifying the taxpayer expenditures.”
Lyons’ comments to AL.com come after the Gulf Coast Working Group released to Congress on Monday its long-awaited report on restarting Amtrak service from New Orleans to Orlando. The recommendation includes two passenger trains stopping in Mobile daily.
‘A lot of money’
Lyons said that CSX accounts for 65 percent of the “heavily rail” activity that goes through the port, and that the freight company already “struggles to maintain service levels” within the port’s crowded rail yard.
He said the former Sunset Limited, which once ran through Mobile on a limited schedule before Hurricane Katrina’s destruction ended Gulf Coast Amtrak service, caused big headaches for freight activity in Mobile.
Lyons’ comments may add new heat to a disagreement between CSX and the Southern Rail Commission about the projected cost of restarting passenger rail on the coast.
The Gulf Coast Working Group estimates that $117.7 million would be needed to restore the rail line for passenger trains. CSX’s estimate is $2.3 billion.
The CSX estimate has been criticized by passenger rail proponents who claim the Jacksonville-based freight company hasn’t disclosed the methodology in how their consultants, HDR, came up with its figure.
Lyons called HRD a “well-respected national company” that is “very knowledgeable on rail issues.”
But even if the estimated $2.3 billion estimate is too high, Lyons said: “If you split the difference and say $1 billion, that’s a lot of money.”
Lyons also questions how much benefit the Mobile region will see from a passenger rail return. He said he could see coastal Alabama riders traveling by train on weekends to visit New Orleans. But, he said, “I don’t see an influx of attracting tourists coming into Mobile. I don’t see any real benefit for Mobile.”
Lyons also questioning Mississippi’s push to get the route re-started. Mississippi lawmakers, backed by U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and Gov. Phil Bryant, have welcomed efforts to re-start Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast more than a decade after Katrina ravaged their state.
Wicker called the working group’s study “encouraging.” He said that passenger rail could be “restored along the coast quickly and at a reasonable cost.”
Wicker joined a group of public officials in February 2016 for an inspection trip to examine the infrastructure and opportunities that intercity rail service could provide to the region. Along the way, large and enthusiastic crowds showed up outside train depots in cities like Bay St. Louis, Gulfport and Biloxi.
Said Lyons: “I’m really baffled about why they are so excited about it. If they think people will ride the train to go to the casinos in Mississippi, I wonder, ‘Why would you get on the train for an hour and a half to two hours and then drive 10 miles to go to the coast where the casinos are at?'” Lyons said. “I don’t think there will be any benefit to Mississippi.”
The only other port along the route between New Orleans to Mobile is the Port of Pascagoula, which is operated by the Jackson County Port Authority. A spokeswoman with the port declined comment about the Gulf Coast Working Group’s Amtrak report.
“It wouldn’t hurt Pascagoula as it would hurt our port, but it would impact their service,” Lyons said.
Alabama federal officials have been somewhat muted about the possible Amtrak revival. None of the Alabama congressmen joined the 2016 inspection tour.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Bryne, R-Fairhope, said that while he believes the working group’s report is “helpful,” he’d like to see more analysis on profitability and ridership, and he continued with his stance in opposing federal subsidies for U.S. passenger rail.
‘Bit of a challenge’
Greg White, chairman of the Southern Rail Commission – a 21-member group formed in 1982 to advocate for passenger rail service and to pursue funding opportunities to support its mission – said he isn’t surprised by Lyons’ stance.
“His mission, obviously, is the movement of freight,” said White, a resident of Andalusia. “There are certainly times when passenger rail and freight have conflicting needs that have to be reconciled. So, that is just part of the process. It’s not a surprise that his focus is on freight, period.”
White acknowledged that the Port of Mobile is “extremely busy” with rail cars, but added: “I tend to think that movement of people is a pretty significant priority for our communities that has to be considered along with the movement of freight.”
The Port of Mobile’s activity has soared in recent years, with container traffic increasing by 19 percent last year to a record number. That activity is expected to get busier with the 2018 opening of a massive Walmart distribution center on Interstate 10 west of Mobile.
Wiley Blankenship, CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership who has served as Mobile’s city representative during SRC meetings, said the port’s position on passenger rail is important.
“One of the things that is a little bit of a challenge right now is the impact potentially it could have on the Port of Mobile,” said Blankenship. “Our port is first and foremost in any consideration of anything that impacts it in a negative sense.”
Blankenship and White said there could be opportunities to improve the existing rail line that could benefit the Port of Mobile and CSX if passenger rail is restored. “The concerns (Lyons) has, we’d like to certainly help address,” White said.
Added Blankenship: “If improvements are made, it can improve the Port in some way.”
A Chattanooga Lookouts batter takes a swing in Mobile’s Hank Aaron Stadium. The Mobile BayBears began a five-game home stand against the Lookouts on Thursday, July 19, 2017. (Lawrence Specker/LSpecker@AL.com)