The organization is a board of members from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana formed to promote planning and development of high-speed rail in the member states. Lean budget times, however, have made a tough job tougher as the members try to persuade the legislators in their respective states to commit funding to rail initiatives.
Phil Jones, a member from Louisiana, said the state legislature is harder to access than Congress when it comes to high-speed rail.
“It’s totally unrealistic in this economic environment to think that we can go to a state legislator right now and get a dime for anything this year or next year,” Jones said. “No one is willing to cough up a cent to go towards a subsidy, which is how they view it, of this pie in the sky — and I’m quoting what’s been told to me — image or vision of a high-speed passenger rail.”
It may be an even harder sell in Alabama. The state, which was a founding member of the commission in 1982, has yet to pay its $70,000 in dues for this fiscal year and is considering withdrawing completely.
Alabama’s current representatives on the board, including Anniston City Planner Toby Bennington, are working to keep that from happening. The members have sent several letters to the Alabama Department of Transportation and to the governor’s office to explain the importance of the commission and the benefits to the state. For instance, since 2001, the state has paid $330,000 in dues but received more than $3.4 million in federal grants as a result of the commission’s work, along with another $1.4 million in federal grants it had to match.
However, Amtrak director of Government Affairs, Thomas Stennis, told the members their best strategy in promoting the rail is not to ask for anything, but to educate the legislators.
“We’re in a part of the country where highway is king,” Stennis said. “There are people that believe that high-speed rail is 250 mph trains and that’s all it is.”
The average person doesn’t understand rail service and doesn’t know how high-speed rail could benefit the country, Stennis said.
Some of the projects the commission could be working on include comprehensive rail plans for their respective states. The states need the plans to qualify for federal funding and that is something that doesn’t cost much money to put together, Stennis said. The members could also lobby their legislators to give the board power to enter into contracts with passenger rail providers to allow interstate high-speed rail corridors to be quickly and easily put into place when the time comes.
Despite the resistance the members are meeting, those at the conference remained passionate about high-speed rail and its potential for the region.
“It’s going to be important transportation mode in the future, said Mayor Gene Robinson. “One day we will not only have the option of getting on a jet and going to Los Angeles, we’ll also have the option to take the train to the coast.”
Martin Bruno, a representative on the commission from Slidell, La., said high-speed rail is already working in a corridor from Washington to New York, but remains just potential in the rest of the country.
“If you go to Europe and look at the systems they have over there, it’s phenomenal,” Bruno said. “You can hop on a train anywhere over there. People use it a lot more over there.”
In Alabama, he pointed out, train ridership has gone up substantially in the last seven years, in part he thinks because rail travel is becoming easier than air travel.
“They don’t feel like getting patted down at the airport so they’re taking the train,” Bruno said. “It’s fun getting on a train. Last time we went to Washington with the commission, we went from Slidell to D.C. on the train. It was great.”
Their enthusiasm inspired some of the interested residents who attended the meeting. Brian Harmon, a member of Anniston’s Planning Commission, was impressed by the discussion. He sees the rail as a way to open up opportunities to residents. For instance, someone with a job in Atlanta might be able to live in Anniston if high-speed rail were a transportation option for them.
“I think in that way it would be a tremendous asset,” Harmon said.
At one time, the United States had more rail than any other country in the world, Robinson said. Decades ago, to travel by train between Anniston and Birmingham or Anniston and Atlanta was routine; the L&N station on 13th Street was Anniston’s “front door” for visitors. But the emphasis on the highway system has curtailed progress.
“We’re so fiercely independent,” Robinson said. “That car gives us independence.”
However, rising gas prices have helped illustrate the need for more efficient and accessible means of transportation and he and Bennington believe the city could benefit tremendously if it could get in on one of those means.
Getting a stop on high-speed rail in Anniston could once again put it on the transportation grid, they said, possibly benefiting Anniston in the future in much the same way Oxford has benefited from its location on Interstate 20.
“I think it’s going to lead to future growth,” Robinson said. “Hopefully one day we’ll have businesses building around the Multi-Modal and the Coldwater Mountain bike trail.”
He points to Meridian, Miss., which renovated its train station and has seen revitalization of that whole area of the city.
“It’s been something that has been talked about for 30 years,” Bennington said. “Hopefully one day some level of it will start to come to fruition and the value will be recognized.”
The commission also decided to invite neighboring states, Texas, Georgia and Florida to join the commission. Georgia has already approached the Alabama representatives to do a corridor study for a route from Atlanta to Birmingham, Bennington said. The members of the commission voted unanimously to support the effort.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.