The plan for a long-awaited passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile -- with a stop in Bay St. Louis -- is on track and could be ready to go in as little as two years, officials said this week.
"The last piece of this puzzle is a $14 million investment from the state of Mississippi," Knox Ross, vice-chairman of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), said Wednesday. "As soon as we get that all together, (Amtrak officials) said their time frame for putting everything together would be about 24 months."
Ross said there are still a few wrinkles to iron out, but he was confident the state legislature would secure the necessary funding.
The project has been in the works for more than three years. It began in early 2016, when members of the SRC, Sen. Roger Wicker and 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.
Once the service is operational, Ross said, there will also be stops in Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula.
Ross said the service would be a huge boon for Bay St. Louis, bringing two trains a day in from New Orleans, and two trains a day in from Mobile.
"You could to a day in-and-out of New Orleans to the Bay or Mobile, or vice versa," he said. "There are at least 700,000 foreign visitors a year in New Orleans, and that's not counting the millions of conventioneers every year. They might not rent a car and drive all the way to the Bay, but they'll walk a block or two down to the train station for a nice day trip.
"All of the work's been done by already by all of the people who worked so hard to get the city back better than it was before (Katrin). …. You look at the investment that's been made in downtown Bay St. Louis, it's probably the hottest real estate on the Coast right now. This is sort of the icing on the cake, to us."
The SRC conducted a business meeting at the Longfellow Community Center in Bay St. Louis on Friday.
John Spain, SRC chairman, on Friday praised the city of Bay St. Louis and Mayor Mike Favre, telling Favre that the huge welcome the Bay offered representatives on the 2016 tour was one of the main reasons the project got the green light in the first place.
Spain and SRC Commissioner John Robert Smith outlined some of the behind-the-scenes work that has gone on to help make the project a reality.
"Sen. Roger Wicker has been our champion," Spain said. Wicker was instrumental in securing the Consolidated Rail Safety Infrastructure Initiative, which provided federal grants to upgrade existing rail lines for passenger service.
Amtrak itself also put up a $6 million investment, Spain said, as well as hiring a third-party negotiator to work with CSX to get everything in place.
Smith said an economic impact study indicated that the passenger service would yield a 15-1 return on investment
Spain said everyone on the Coast needs to let their legislators know they should be behind the project.
"From a Coastal perspective," Spain said, "your legislature needs to know you what it done. They just need to hear from the local people what you want. They are ready to act, I believe."
Favre said the Bay St. Louis city government and Hancock County Board of Supervisors are expected to invest $50,000 each in upgrading the existing BSL Depot to make it ADA-compliant for train passengers. He said both bodies were scheduled to vote on that funding next week.