Amtrak visit

Then-Gov. Phil Bryan stops in Bay St. Louis in 2016 as part of a VIP Amtrak tour from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Fla., to consider the possibility of restoring passenger rail service on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Amtrak officials on Wednesday confirmed that passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile — with twice-daily stops in Bay St. Louis — will resume in 2022.

“We are absolutely thrilled,” long-time Southern Rail Commission (SRC) and Bay St. Louis resident Kay Kell said Wednesday.

“Having worked tirelessly with federal, state, and local officials on this project, we are thrilled that a departure time is in sight for passenger rail service on the Gulf Coast,” SRC Chairman Wiley Blankenship said in a statement released Thursday. “Since the 2016 inspection train, which brought out thousands of citizens across the Gulf Coast demonstrating enthusiastic support for passenger rail, this is one of the major milestones we have been working toward. While additional work needs to be done to address the concerns of the Port of Mobile before service can start, Amtrak service will provide a much-needed shot in the arm for local economies still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple extreme weather events.”

The passenger rail restoration project has been in the works since early 2016, when members of the SRC, Sen. Roger Wicker and then-Gov. Phil Bryant conducted an Amtrak tour from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Fla., stopping in Bay St. Louis and other points on the Gulf Coast along the way.

Kell said Amtrak has not yet established exactly when in 2022 the service will begin, but said multiple agencies are working to make it happen as quickly as possible.

Once the service is operational, there will also be stops in Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula.

“The SRC has been uniquely successful in securing multiple federal grants to enable the Amtrak trains to start next year, including full federal support of operating costs for the first year of service and continued federal support in the second and third year ($11.2 million), and a federal grant and local matching funds for improvements to area railroad infrastructure for passenger and freight service ($66 million) to cities along the route for planning, upgrading, and constructing their rail stations ($2 million),” Blankenship said.

Transportation America Chairman John Robert Smith, who is working with the SRC to the new Mobile-to-New Orleans passenger rail service, said last year that an economic impact study indicated that the passenger service would yield a 15-1 return on investment on the Gulf Coast.

The city of Bay St. Louis is in the midst of a massive improvement project at the city’s historic Depot grounds, through funds procured thanks to the efforts of state Sen. Philip Moran and state Rep. Brent Anderson from the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund and administered by the Mississippi Development Authority.

Bay Councilman-at-Large Gary Knoblock said last year that the Depot revitalization will include a state-of-the-art performance stage with lights; a retractable movie screen; expanded green spaces; a new playground; the relocation of the Alice Moseley Pavilion elsewhere on the grounds; adding a second pavilion near the BSL Community Center to accommodate weddings and other events; improvements to the Depot building, such as roof repairs, door replacement and painting; re-surfacing and widening the street and parking lot; building a handicapped-accessible comfort station; improvements at the duck pond such as LED lighting to create a “light show” and additional park benches and/or tables, as well as fencing to better separate the area from the railroad track; and removal of the palm trees at the Depot, replacing them with live oak trees and moving the palms to the beach areas around the marina, or Washington Street beach area.

Knoblock said there are also plans to close Keller Street and return it to green space to adjoin the community center; create lighted informational kiosks around the grounds; and plant new flowers, bushes and foliage with new signage in front of the Depot building. Local artists will also be asked to participate, contributing artwork around the grounds.

Councilman Jeff Reed said at the time that the entire project was the result of planning by a committee, which included Reed and Knoblock, as well as Councilman Gene Hoffman; architects John Anderson, Ed Wikoff and Larry Jaubert; Lonnie Falgout; Regan Kane; Myron Labat; Jim McPhaille; Gary Ponthieux, Sr,; David Reso; and Terry Stolz.

Reed said the estimated completion date of the project is Labor Day 2021.

Last month, the council unanimously approved Mayor Mike Favre’s recommendation of Ed Wikoff Architects and Chiniche P.A., Inc. to design and oversee the passenger rail platform update. The council also voted 7-0 to approve Favre’s recommendation of Michael Reeves, Architect, to oversee the Depot Grounds revitalization project.

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