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Advocates hope to restore Amtrak service lost since Katrina

Advocates hope to restore Amtrak service lost since Katrina
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Transportation advocates are hoping to convince Amtrak to restore rail service on the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Florida that has been dormant since Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. 

Trains on Amtrak's Sunset Limited route, which used to run between Los Angeles and Orlando, have ended in New Orleans since the 2005 storm, which wiped out tracks along the Gulf of Mexico. 

A provision in a multiyear transportation bill that was approved in July by the Senate would provide funding for a study of the feasibility of restoring the service, which used to make stops in Alabama and the panhandle of Florida before it headed south to Orlando. 

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Advocates of restoring the dormant Gulf Coast Amtrak service are hoping to win support for the language in the House when lawmakers return to Washington in September. 

"The Senate has passed a very good bill that does two things: It creates a $100 million fund for states to access for services which were annulled (Sunset Limited) or under threat of downgrading of discontinuance (Southwest Chief)," a group called Friends of Sunset Limited to Florida wrote in a Facebook post as the Senate was approving the highway bill, which is known as the DRIVE Act, in July.

"Also restructures the Amtrak Board of directors by creating better regional representation," the group's post continued. "Two directors each would come from the Northeast Corridor, States supporting passenger service and most importantly for us, areas served by long distance service." 

The group implored supporters to contact members of the House to urge them to include the Sunset Limited restoration study in any version of the highway bill they take up later this year. 

"This is our chance, people," the group wrote. "This bill must be reconciled with the much less favorable House bill before it goes to the President for his signature. PLEASE write, email or call your US Representative, especially if they are Republicans. ALSO...if you live in Mississippi, PLEASE THANK Sen. Roger WickerRoger WickerFCC chairman willing to resign to get colleague confirmed GOP eager to see Harry Reid go Senate GOP to Obama: Stop issuing new rules MORE [R-Miss] for his bipartisan sponsorship of the Senate bill with Sen. Cory Booker [D-N.J.]." 

The 1,995 mile Sunset Limited is one of Amtrak's national, or long-distance, trains that have been dubbed money-losers by critics for years. The route carried 105,000 passengers in the 2014 fiscal year, the lowest total of any long-distance Amtrak service, according to figures released by the company last fall.  

Amtrak supporters have defended the losses on national routes such as Sunset Limited by arguing that subsidizing long-distance trains in parts of the country with little air service is a big part of the reason Congress created the company in the first place. 

Wicker and Booker said in June that they offered the rail measure because "the nation’s passenger rail system serves as an integral part of our overall transportation structure and our economy,” although they did not mention the language that authorized the study of restoring the Gulf Coast Amtrak service. 

“This bipartisan measure would make robust improvements to safety programs, improve existing infrastructure, and empower state and local officials. The bill also leverages private sector investment, cuts red tape, and increases transparency to make our critical infrastructure dollars go further," Wicker said in a statement when the measure was first introduced.

"To help the United States compete globally, we must invest in a safe and reliable passenger rail system that Americans can depend on,” Booker added then. “But too often our rail system falls short due to a lack of adequate infrastructure investment."