Destin Leaders Support Return Of Rail Service
By Tony Judnich, nwfdailynews.com, November 12, 2016
DESTIN – The final report on the proposal to restore passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast could be submitted to the federal government by the end of the year, a regional planner said recently.
Amtrak’s Sunset Crescent route from New Orleans to Jacksonville has been suspended since 2005, when portions of the rail infrastructure were damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Rail lines destroyed by the storm had been rebuilt by 2006, but the passenger rail service – which was known for its routinely late trains – has never been re-established.
The goal of the restored service is to have a train run daily between New Orleans and Jacksonville, thereby establishing a commuter rail connection from New Orleans to Orlando and South Florida.
One of the stops of the possible restored service would be in Crestview, where its small depot served rail passengers before Hurricane Katrina. The Crestview City Council last year approved a resolution in support of bringing back the rail service, Crestview Mayor and Regional Planning Council member David Cadle said last Tuesday.
“Members of the Southern Rail Commission inspected the entire route several months ago,” he said.
Cadle said the city, through its Community Redevelopment Agency, plans to build a new train depot that, unlike its old one, will be ADA-compliant.
“The problem (with the former passenger rail service) was it very unreliable,” he said. “The trains would be hours late sometimes, so there were not a lot of customers with the late arrivals and departures.”
Cadle said he thinks the final report that will be given to federal officials will include the projected costs of restoring and upgrading the service across the Panhandle, and the expected turnout of passengers.
Cadle, who began serving as Crestview’s mayor in April 2007, said he isn’t sure if the prior rail service made much of an economic impact on the area.
“The stops (in Crestview) were in the middle of the night, and they weren’t long enough for people to get off and on” the trains, he said. “If the service is upgraded, maybe we’ll get better (arrival/departure) times and folks will have better service.”
He said he has talked with Ted Corcoran, president of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, about possibly having trolleys or other modes of transportation bringing future train passengers to their hotels and other destinations.
Last Monday, the Destin City Council approved its own resolution of support to re-establishing the rail service. Before passing the resolution, the council heard from Vikki Garrett, public transportation planner with the West Florida Regional Planning Council in Pensacola.
She urged the council and city residents who favor re-establishing the service to share their support with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, who is the ranking member of the committee that will review the final report. Officials expect the report to be given to the committee by the end of the year, Garrett said.
“It’s a multi-state effort,” she said of bringing back the service.
Besides Florida and Louisiana, the other states involved in the drive to re-establish the rail service are Alabama and Mississippi. Garrett said the planning council is also working closely with the Southern Rail Commission and the rail-line’s owner, CSX Transportation.
Destin City Councilman and Regional Planning Council member Jim Foreman said, “If we’re going to reduce traffic on (U.S. Highway) 98 to any degree, we need to support the rail system.”
Restoring the rail service also would help boost the area’s economy, he said.
In 2009, the Fort Walton Beach City Council approved a resolution supporting re-establishment of the rail service. To date, the Okaloosa County Commission has not passed such a measure.
“We’ve just not taken the time to do it,” Commissioner and Regional Planning Council member Nathan Boyles said last Tuesday.
He said one of the main challenges to restoring the service is making sure that it doesn’t require a lot of taxpayers’ money.
“With my government hat on, I want to make sure the system is self-sustaining,” Boyles said. “If it does not require heavy subsidies from the federal government, this would be a positive economic benefit to Okaloosa County and Northwest Florida.
“I would put passenger rail in the same category as air travel for Okaloosa County,” he added. “Anytime we can increase the options for tourists and other visitors to come to Okaloosa County is good for the economy. They bring money to the area and that creates jobs.”
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