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Could federal infrastructure money bring Amtrak to North Florida at last?

The front of a red-white-and-blue Amtrak train with the number 822 displayed
In 2016, the appearance of an Amtrak train in Tallahassee drew a crowd

Local elected officials are gearing up for another try at bringing passenger rail to Tallahassee. It’s still a long shot, but there’s new federal money this time.

Amtrak service east from New Orleans hasn’t operated since Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast in 2005. But while the tracks and bridges have been repaired along the old Sunset Limited route, the trains no longer make stops in North Florida.

“But there’s never been more interest at the federal level for restoring passenger rail and upgrading routes,” said Leon County Commissioner Rick Minor. “Now’s the time to do what we can to get restored here.”

Minor is pushing to bring Amtrak back through Tallahassee. The carrier has already confirmed it’s re-establishing the New Orleans to Mobile part of the route. In a December report, Amtrak listed Mobile to Jacksonville as having, quote: “expressions of interest for long distance routes.”

The renewed interest in Amtrak has been sparked by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $50 billion to Amtrak. Here’s County Commission Chair Nick Maddox:

“Absolutely, that is the game-changer, and that’s where we’re going to go, we’re going to go after those federal dollars,” said Maddox. “And we’re going to try to do it as a conglomerate, as a group.”

Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey says the city will be part of that group as well.

“I am extremely excited at the possibility of the Amtrak line coming back to North Florida,” said Dailey. “And so, because the county actually owns the facility, we are in a position to back the county how we can to help bring the line back. And I think you’ll find communities from Jacksonville to New Orleans that would all be in the same position.”

Minor knows there have been multiple attempts to restore the trains over the years, including in 2016. They all failed. But he says that’s not because people along the route didn’t want it.

“I know that people here really would like to have passenger rail restored,” Minor said. “What we need to do is really push our governor, our congressional delegation from Florida and our state legislature. Right now, unfortunately, all of those levels of government are not very enthusiastic about restoring rail.”

Historically, one of the larger hurdles to resuming full service between Pensacola and Jacksonville has been ownership of the tracks along the route. According to the Pensacola News Journal, the rail giant CSX hasn’t been very enthusiastic about passenger trains on its lines. But CSX ‘s Florida business was recently bought by Gulf and Atlantic. And local officials like Minor see an opening to try to get Amtrak back.

Minor hopes to organize communities across North Florida who want passenger rail to, quote, “push up.”

“You know, one thing I’ve learned about advocacy: When you’re pushing for something to get done, you’re going to be told ‘No, no, no, no’ -- until you hear ‘Yes,’” he said. “And that’s how it needs to work here.”

Minor says the last time Amtrak came through Tallahassee on the old Sunset Limited route, in 2016, it turned into a rally at the depot. He’s looking to show state leaders that that same love of trains endures.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.