Federal grant awarded to restore railroad in South Arkansas

More than seven years after a railroad line connecting Lake Village with Lake Providence, La., was shut down, cutting off shippers trying to move their products, the line is about to get a new start, thanks to money from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, through the Federal Economic Development Administration, has awarded a $2 million grant which will be administered by the Southeast Arkansas Economic Development District and those funds will be used to get the line back open.

Glenn Bell, Executive Director of the Southeast Arkansas Economic Development District, said the grant was the result of a federal disaster declaration last year following two major storm systems that dumped record rain in Southeast Arkansas and North Louisiana, washing out roads and bridges, and severely limiting economic development opportunities because of an inability of businesses to transport products and supplies.

“The improvements will provide a connection with the Union Pacific Railroad (at Lake Providence, La.) and are a critical component of broader efforts to restore vital transportation infrastructure,” Commerce Department spokesman John Atwood said.

The former owner of the line, Delta Southern Railroad, abandoned it in 2005 and the Economic Development District bought just over 21 miles running from Lake Village to the Arkansas state line that same year.

During the last year, Delta Southern has sold the section running from McGehee to Lake Village and the section from the Arkansas state line to the Lake Providence Port Authority, putting all of it in public hands.

Bell said the State of Arkansas and the Lake Providence Port Authority have each committed to provide up to $1.5 million to the project, which will be done in two phases.

The first phase will include repairing two bridges, replacing crossties and and rock bedding, and is expected to cost about $4.3 million.

Bell said approximately 39,000 crossties and 18,000 tons of rock will be needed for that phase, which will permit trains to run at a speed of 10 miles per hour along the track, meaning that a round trip would take approximately 12 hours and would not be a real economic benefit.

The second phase of the project, however, would allow trains to travel at 25 miles per hour, and when that happens, Bell said the North Louisiana/Arkansas Railroad, which currently utilizes part of the line, will add new jobs at Eudora, and an industry at Lake Providence has committed to adding a second shift, creating 150 jobs, some of which will be filled by workers living in Eudora.

Additionally, Bell said the railroad has contacted a number of historic and former shippers who have expressed an interest in using the line when it is fully restored.

Another factor that could come into play is that shipping costs differ greatly depending on which side of the Mississippi River a business or industry is on, and Bell said costs are cheaper for shippers on the west side of the river trying to get their products to the Midwest.

For example, Bell said potential shippers in Mississippi could send their products by truck across the new bridge at Greenville, Miss., to Lake Village, then off-load those products on a trail for transport to Lake Providence and save money.

Existing rail lines between Lake Providence and Tallulah, La., would allow shippers to connect with the Kansas City Southern Railroad, and their lines to get products to a port in Mexico where a number of shipments headed for the West Coast start out, costing less to ship those products, Bell said.

Bids for the first phase of the restoration are expected to go out in the next few months and the first phase of the project is expected to be completed by next spring.

The second phase of the project is expected to cost about $6 million and Bell said his agency and others are already working on grant applications for those funds.

“This process has been going on for seven years and when we actually get it (the rail service) started, I think it will generate a lot of interest from shippers, particularly because of fuel prices,” Bell said. “This is going to be the perfect line for companies to ship their products.”