Amtrak takes lead on grant for I-20 corridor passenger railway plans

A proposal would put a passenger railway stop in Ruston alongside Ruston Farmers Market. (photo by Malcolm Butler)

by Malcolm Butler

The Southern Rail Commission (SRC), along with Amtrak, announced Friday that it will take the lead on pursuing grants that include the application that will support the extension of passenger rail services from Meridian, Mississippi, to Dallas/Fort Worth along the I-20 corridor.

“This is another example of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act paying off for Louisiana,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA). “The partnership between Amtrak, the Southern Rail Commission, Mayors Walker, Ellis, and Arceneaux connects north Louisiana cities with all points East and West,”

The total grant is estimated to be around $160 million. If the grant is obtained the rail service would include a stop in Lincoln Parish which would have a significant impact, according to Mayor Ronny Walker.

“It’s tremendous from an economic development standpoint,” said Walker via phone Saturday. “It’s huge for Louisiana Tech and Grambling State. But more importantly, it’s huge for the Louisiana Center for the Blind.”

Walker said that officials in both Washington DC and with Amtrak were amazed to learn that Ruston is home to one of only three Centers for the Blind that exist nationally.

“That was a big selling point with Amtrak,” said Walker. “They had no idea. Same for the officials in DC. It’s huge because all of the students whether they are 5-years-old or 85-years-old can get on the train and come to Ruston.”

Walker said a specific timeline isn’t known, but the fact that Amtrak is now spear-heading the pursuit of the grant is beneficial for the cities (Shreveport, Ruston, Monroe, Vicksburg) involved in the I-20 proposal.

“It takes the burden off the cities,” said Walker. “Now we don’t have to go to Washington twice a year and try to convince a congressional delegation that we need the funding. Instead, Amtrak is doing it. They are the ones wanting it as well. It’s a game-changer.”

Walker said the stop in Ruston would be located along the current railroad tracks by the Ruston Farmers Market. He said the exact price tag for the Ruston portion isn’t known yet, but he estimates around $10 million for a platform, parking garage and new green space for the area.

“It’s going to take years,” said Walker when asked about the time frame. “We don’t have an idea on how many years, but this move by Amtrak will cut the time frame down significantly.”

Walker did say this is the first time in more than two decades that the SRC has made this type of move.

“As the entity responsible for providing the nation’s long-distance intercity passenger rail service, Amtrak will work with our partners to seek the funds needed to study expansion and improvement options where strong stakeholder support exists and initial analysis show opportunity.” said Amtrak Vice President of Network Development Nicole Bucich. “With the encouragement and support of federal, state and local officials, this application is the first step in determining the feasibility of this concept and the benefits and challenges, including federal funding commitments, of expanding Amtrak service to the I-20 route.”

Walker said that he and his fellow mayors in Monroe, Shreveport and Vicksburg all feel Friday’s news is huge towards this becoming a reality.

“They have the man power and the brain power to get this done,” said Walker. “They know exactly how to write these things to get them done.