Tupelo rail revamp study chugs along

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Nearly six years after its launch, Tupelo’s $2.2 million railroad relocation study got preliminary approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.
It now goes back to the public, at a hearing tentatively set for early August, before a final report can be submitted to the FRA, said Rhea Vincent, location engineer with the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
MDOT has acted as lead coordinator in the study that aims to alleviate train-induced traffic congestion in the heart of Northeast Mississippi’s largest city. Some two dozen trains traverse downtown Tupelo daily on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, clogging some of the busiest intersections.
Once the FRA gives its final approval, the study – which originally was to have taken three years – will be complete. What happens after that, though, is anyone’s guess.
“I don’t want to make any pre-game predictions,” said Mayor Jack Reed Jr. “Things certainly have changed in the federal government’s budgeting process since this started.”
Although funding for the study came from federal sources secured through then-U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., it’s unclear who would fund the actual project if implemented.
The study recommends elevating the BNSF track above downtown Tupelo. It was considered the best choice among more than a dozen possible alternatives, including several that would have rerouted the tracks outside town.
Called a rail viaduct, the recommended option would keep the BNSF track on the same route but lift it 23 feet above street level. Trains no longer would intersect vehicular traffic and/or blow their whistles through town.
It’d cost $407 million, a figure that’s at least two years old and likely will climb if and when the city decides to go with the option.
But the measure would save Tupelo more than $800 million by 2030 by eliminating the need to stop traffic for each train. Gas consumption, worker salaries and other factors helped determine that figure, which was published in one of the study’s preliminary papers in 2006.
Reed said the city doesn’t have to go forward with the study’s recommendation and can instead explore less expensive options – relocating the downtown switching yard, for example.
But “the smart thing to do is just wait and listen to the report and let the council and the public digest it,” he said. “We’ll go from there.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.