Interstate rail commissions get projects done. A new bill will create more of them

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Last month, Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-9) introduced legislation that would create interstate rail compacts across the country. This bill is inspired by the success of the Southern Rail Commission, a compact of states along the Gulf Coast that teamed up to restore passenger rail service destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. 

Riding the Gulf Coast inspection train in 2016. An interstate rail commission of southern states is fighting to restore passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast.

Restoring or expanding passenger rail across state lines is a tall order. These projects take years—often decades—requiring collaboration between a rotating cast of state governors, presidential administrations, and local officials. 

Multiyear rail projects need leadership continuity and regular collaboration between states. That’s where the Interstate Rail Compacts Advancement Act comes in. 

Last month, Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-9) introduced this bill that would create interstate rail commissions across the country. These commissions are organizations of state representatives appointed by governors to promote, pursue, and help communities implement rail projects with technical assistance. 

“Most intercity passenger rail serves a multi-state region, with passengers regularly traveling across state lines. However, regional collaboration to support passenger rail service is only as effective as coordination between Governors, State Departments of Transportation, and other relevant state and local officials and entities,” said Rep. Cohen in a press release on the bill. “By incentivizing states to create multi-state rail commissions, we can improve regional collaboration to support passenger rail service.” 

The Interstate Rail Compacts Advancement Act would incentivize the creation of up to 10 passenger rail commissions by providing states with matching operating funds up to $500,000 per year per applicant. 

We know firsthand how successful these commissions can be at making passenger rail projects reality through our work with the Southern Rail Commission (SRC). This compact between Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama was created by Congress in 1982 to develop passenger service in the region, and later focused on restoring service along the Gulf Coast after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

In 2019, the SRC won $33 million in a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) grant to restore passenger service along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile. More federal grants have rolled in since. 

Expanding intercity passenger rail service in the U.S. requires a high degree of coordination and planning across state borders. The decades-long project to restore passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast spanning three states is a case in point, requiring funding and close coordination from three different states,” said our chairman, John Robert Smith, and former mayor of Meridian, MS. “By incentivizing other states to work together in this fashion with the promise of additional matching federal funds, this bill will foster the same kind of successful collaboration in other parts of the country to expand and improve the country’s long-neglected passenger rail network.”

We urge Congress to pass the Interstate Rail Compacts Advancement Act to make it possible for more regions across the country to pursue passenger rail. 

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