Improving access to public transit is one of Chef Madi Butler’s passions, and it shows. Having grown up in Kentucky, where public transit access is limited (to say the least), Butler has seen firsthand how that lack of access can affect communities.
This summer, Butler joins the Rail Passenger Association’s Summer By Rail program. Throughout the summer, she’s been traveling cross-country from Main to California via some of Amtrak’s most well-traveled lines. Throughout her trip, the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts graduate is training under famous chefs in some of the top restaurants in the country.
When I caught up with her here in New Orleans, it was at a private tasting at Jimbeaux’s Bar and Grill, which opens in the Central Business District on August 3. Over a delightful menu that included Ponchatoula salad, red bean hummus, oyster flambeaux, roast beef tacos, steak topped with lump crabmeat, and signature cocktails Madi and I talked a little about her passion for rail travel.
“Rail travel provides accessibility for all different types of people,” Butler said when I asked her why this issue is so important. “It’s more environmentally conscious as a mode of transportation. As long as it’s affordable and includes both urban and rural destinations, rail travel can provide great solutions and revitalization in a variety of communities.”
That revitalization element is especially important here in the Gulf South, where the Gulf Coast Rail Line has been out of commission since Hurricane Katrina. During her visit, Butler traveled to Biloxi to talk about the importance of reinstating the line.
“In comparison to the tangible and measurable benefits other places in the region have seen thanks to rail access, the Gulf Coast could see a resurgence in tourism and hospitality. Reinstatement of [the Gulf Coast Rail Line] will benefit both the Boomers and Millenials in the area.”
One of the main challenges facing passenger rail service is a lack of funding. As noted by National Railroad Passenger Corporation CEO Richard Anderson in his testimony before Congress, portions of Amtrak’s infrastructure have become outdated, even as demand for their services has continued to grow. “In an era where perpetual highway congestion and environmental concerns highlight rail’s compelling advantages, we should be discussing the significant upgrades to achieve speeds and levels of service found around the world today,” Anderson said.
In spite of the growth and changes that have occurred across the United States, the passenger rail map looks very similar to the one created in the 1970s. Urbanization trends, economic growth, and, yes, concerns over climate change are all driving the increasing demand for better rail travel. According to Anderson, Millenials, in particular, prefer the flexibility and affordability of rail when compared to air travel.
And yet, President Trump has chosen to nominate Rep. Todd Rokita, Republican Congressman for Indiana – a man who has twice voted to defund passenger rail service – to Amtrak’s board. When I asked Madi her thoughts on the issue, she had this to say:
“We have to elect officials that are willing to be held accountable to the communities they are elected to represent. My participation in the Rail Passengers Association is a testament to the fact that I will always advocate for the rights of passengers and the accessibility of all who reside in the United States and rely on public transportation.
Defunding public transportation is an insult to those who rely on it. Single-user automobile culture is not sustainable. It is not inclusive. Without multi-modal solutions, we are denying autonomy to people that live within our community. Defunding long-distance national passenger rail initiatives would be a huge misstep and lead to further marginalization of our at-risk communities. In contrast to every other developed country that prioritizes public transportaion, we have a lot to catch up on as it is.
Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and editor currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of Big Easy Magazine. Her work has also been featured in publications such as Wander N.O. More, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_