When President Obama announced his plan for a national high-speed rail network earlier this year, one of the people invited to attend was the Republican mayor of a city you’ve most likely never heard of — Meridian, Mississippi. And one of the rail routes, running from Atlanta to New Orleans, went right through Meridian.
The presence of the city’s mayor, John Robert Smith, at that announcement — and the likelihood that Meridian, a city of 40,000 people, will be a stop on a regional high-speed train — is the product of years of effort. Smith, who has been serving as mayor since 1993 and will be leaving office this year, has been working since the beginning of his tenure to capitalize on Meridian’s history as a railroad town and its role as the commercial center for some 350,000 people living in Mississippi and Alabama. USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood’s recent trip to look at high-speed rail in Europe underscores the Obama administration’s conviction, which Smith shares, that trains can radically change the economic prospects of small cities for the better.
Smith has long been an active booster of passenger rail at the national as well as the local level, serving on the board of Amtrak from 1997 to 2002. He worked to secure funding for a complete redesign and reconstruction of the city’s railroad station as a multimodal transportation center (Greyhound buses also use it as a terminal). The new station was completed in 1997 and has lifted the fortunes of the neighborhood around it. In February, Smith delivered the keynote address at the launch of Transportation for America’s platform.
Back in March, I found myself pulling into Meridian on the Amtrak Crescent. I visited with Smith in his office and we talked about what the railroad has meant to his city’s past and what it could mean to Meridian’s future. Then he took me for a walking tour of the downtown.
As you’ll see from the slide show above, Meridian is an interesting model for of what passenger rail could mean to other small cities around the country.