"This report makes clear the need to restore passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast and provides a path to get us there."

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A congressionally appointed work group has signaled its support for reestablishing passenger rail service between New Orleans and Orlando, a route that will include a handful of stops in Northwest Florida.

The Gulf Coast Working Group says an expanding economy and population growth that could bring nearly 24 million people to an area stretching from the Gulf Coast to Central Florida over the next 30 years make passenger rail essential.

“Over the course of the past decade, it has become clear that the restoration of passenger rail service along the corridor is important to the region in order to sustain its economic growth and provide additional connectivity between growing economic centers and the region’s smaller communities and rural areas and north-south intermodal routes,” the study’s overview says.

The route, as presently envisioned, would include stops in 12 Florida cities between Pensacola and Orlando. Pensacola, Crestview and Chipley are all slated to have passenger rail terminals.

Southern Rail Commission Chairman Greg White, a member of the Working Group, said the group used the old route of the Sunset Limited as its baseline “for purposes of this study." If passenger rail were to become reality, he added, there would be nothing prohibiting municipalities like Milton or DeFuniak Springs from petitioning Amtrak for train stops.

The Working Group acknowledges re-establishing Amtrak train routes abandoned following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 won’t be cheap, but it wants to commission a study to determine the cost.

Its report cites two estimates from railroad giant CSX Transportation regarding the cost of upgrading existing rail lines it maintains to make them serviceable for both freight and passenger service.

The first estimate, the one CSX claims is most accurate, is $2.3 billion. The second is $780 million.

CSX, White said, has not been a fully cooperative partner in studying the passenger rail option. The railroad has not shared the “underlying facts and assumptions” used to determine the cost estimates it had provided, he said.

The study also estimates the passenger rail service will incur $5.48 million in “annual operating needs.”

Challenges exist

The report acknowledges “monumental capacity challenges exist” along the New Orleans to Orlando route that could hinder Amtrak’s efforts to comply with federal standards that trains arrive on time at a minimum 80 percent ratio.

One obstacle cited by CSX as standing in the way of insuring on-time arrivals is that 17 drawbridges exist on the railway between New Orleans and Orlando, and maritime law gives right of way to ships.

White said the drawbridges have never been a major factor in delays, and the U.S. Coast Guard has offered to work with Amtrak to streamline the movement of water and rail traffic.

The Working Group report lists nine sources of possible funding for a passenger rail initiative.

“A combination of local, state and federal funding needs to be secured to support initial and ongoing capital costs,” it states.

Among the sources noted was “British Petroleum (BP) Oil Spill Proceeds.”

Five Gulf Coast states received millions from BP as part of a legal settlement following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

White said state officials in Mississippi have indicated a willingness to use BP settlement dollars.

The job of doling out the $1.2 billion Northwest Florida will receive from BP over the next 18 years falls on the Triumph Gulf Coast board.

Former state senator Don Gaetz, who was recently appointed to that board, said addressing transportation infrastructure needs would seem to meet the economic development criteria required of projects seeking funding.

Amtrak’s history of relying upon government subsidies to keep its passenger service afloat, however, might make the Triumph Board hesitant to put up dollars to reestablish the New Orleans to Orlando route.

“For a project to be funded it needs to be demonstrated to create jobs, be sustainable and not reliant on subsidies. I can’t see funding something that needs $50,000 a year from now until the end of the world,” Gaetz said. “The projects Triumph will invest in will be those that can be sustained on their own merit once established.”

Partisan split on funding?

Funding for Amtrak has tended to be something of a partisan issue over the years, with Democrats supporting passenger rail service and Republicans more likely to be opposed.

On July 18, the day after the Working Group turned in its report to Congress, Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, sent out a news release in support of bringing passenger rail to Florida and the Gulf Coast.

“This report makes clear the need to restore passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast and provides a path to get us there,” Nelson said. “While there’s lots of work ahead, this service will not only help us meet the future transportation needs of the region, but could also be a boon for tourism and the local economy.”

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said he “loves the idea of passenger rail in Northwest Florida,” but added he, like his father, didn’t favor subsidizing Amtrak.

“I’m not willing to borrow money from China to pay for it,” he said.

Despite the obstacles, White was encouraged by what the Gulf Coast Working Group was able to accomplish in compiling its report.

“What this tells me is we’ve still got some pretty daunting hurdles to cross," he said, "but they’re not insurmountable."