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What could proposed train expansion do for small towns

Amtrak Acela
Posted at 11:06 AM, May 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-05 14:15:52-04

MERIDIAN, Miss. — President Biden continues to push for major infrastructure spending in Congress.

Negotiations are expected to intensify in the coming weeks on Capitol Hill.

The American Jobs Plan and the American Families plan have an estimated price tag of over 4 trillion dollars and, according to the Biden administration, will be paid for by new taxes on wealthier Americans and corporations.

PUSH FOR TRAINS

The American Jobs Plan calls for over $80 billion to be spent on train and rail expansion.

President Biden, who commuted daily from Delaware to Washington, D.C. during his time in the Senate, has called it a great priority.

During a speech celebrating Amtrak's 50th anniversary, Biden said "think of what it will mean for opportunity if we can connect Milwaukee to Green Bay to Madison."

"We have a huge opportunity here to provide fast, safe, reliable, clean transportation in this country. And transit is part of the infrastructure," Biden said.

IMPACT ON SMALL TOWNS

If you are wondering what trains can do for small communities across the country, look no further than Meridian, Mississippi.

While many train stations were shutting down across the country, Meridian made an effort to revitalize their downtown by building a train station complete with multi-modal transportation options.

What did this do for the community of 40,000? People who live there say a lot.

"You had a blighted section of town that people wouldn’t come to," Jerome Trahan, a longtime resident and advocate for the community said.

Before the train station came along there wasn’t a museum dedicated to Mississippi artists or many restaurants.

In short, a lot more “closed” signs than “open” ones.

"Now there is a viable downtown that lives and breathes with a train station as an anchor," Trahan said.

Across the country small towns and big cities are anxiously waiting on the infrastructure bill in Congress.

If it passes, Amtrak says it would create 30 new routes including Las Vegas to Los Angeles and Colorado Springs to Cheyenne, Wyoming, going through Denver.

The long talked about Cincinnati to Cleveland train has even been mentioned.

BILOXI READY TO GO

One station expecting a train soon is Biloxi, Mississippi.

Amtrak has already announced plans to use the tracks in this Gulf Coast town for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

Mayor FoFo Gilich says an infrastructure bill would further ensure it happens.

"People will jump on a train to get here," Gilich said.

"We like to think getting people to Biloxi and the product will sell itself," Gilich added.

Gilich envisions tourists from nearby New Orleans coming to Biloxi for the day. He thinks new condos could be built near the train platform.

MONEY DOESN'T SOLVE EVERYTHING

But increasing passenger rail across the country is easier said than done and involves more than just money.

The Boston Globe editorial board recently said "New Amtrak funding should be directed to the places that use train travel the most." They aren’t interested in many new routes.

Then there is the question of who actually owns the tracks.

"90% of Amtrak is run over somebody else, it creates a lot of tension obviously," Knox Ross, a member of the Southern Rail Commission, said.

Amtrak often doesn’t own the tracks and needs freight trains to let them use it. That always doesn’t happen. Many times freight companies argue passenger rail disrupts their business.

"We want to try and work on that because we want it to work for everybody," Ross said.

One example of the tension occurred during our Meridian visit.

The scheduled Amtrak train was over an hour late because freight rail was using the tracks. Passengers were forced to wait.

Still though as the infrastructure debate continues, towns are starting to wonder if Meridian has a train station why don’t they.