J. William (Billy) McFarland, Jr., a Tuscaloosa native, still remembers the telephone call he received in 2009 from then-Governor Bob Riley. “Governor Riley spoke about the void left due to the recent passing of my father, Bill. He then stated that I had been recommended to him by our good friend John Merrill (former State Legislator and current Alabama Secretary of State). He asked whether I would consider accepting an appointment to the Southern Rail Commission, an Interstate Compact authorized by the United States Congress,” he recalls. “I thanked him for his call, and asked for a short time to consider this matter, and he graciously agreed.”
While the telephone call that day may have surprised McFarland, the nomination to service on the Southern Rail Commission should not have. McFarland’s father, Bill, served as a founding member of the commission in 1982, serving continuously under the appointment of six Alabama governors. He was serving his fifth term as chairman of the commission in 2008 when he passed away. McFarland’s grandfather, Ward Wharton McFarland, developed and expanded the State Docks’ Terminal short line railway in Mobile when he served as Alabama State Docks Director in Governor James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, Sr.’s cabinet. And his great-grandfather, Ward I McFarland, spent a 60 year career as a locomotive engineer for the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad.
The next morning, he reached Governor Riley and accepted the appointment with one caveat: that his service would be more than a tribute to his family’s long history with rail in Alabama. Instead, he wanted to continue and expand the progress made in passenger rail in order that the state become truly connected; both from a transportation but also economic development standpoint. “Rail, both passenger and freight, is an economic engine. Intermodal connections provide a critical network that improves our state, our region, and our nation on a daily basis.” McFarland, who has worked to improve the Black Belt region for years, currently serves as Special Assistant to the President for Business Development at Judson College in Marion. He believes that rail offers a real opportunity to grow the economy in Alabama’s Black Belt.
McFarland was elected as Chairman of the Southern Rail Commission by his peers in 2011, and Governor Bentley named him as his Designee to the Commission last year. He is grateful of the opportunity to serve the citizens of the State of Alabama, and is excited about accomplishments since his initial appointment by Governor Riley in 2009.
“We have rebranded the Commission, launched a new Website (www.southernrailcommission.org) and begun a marketing campaign,” he said, to “highlight the vital work that this commission does within the states of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi and beyond. From improving grade crossing safety throughout the region to supporting existing passenger rail service like the Amtrak Crescent to planning and developing new passenger rail initiatives, such as the Gulf Breeze (which would link Birmingham-Montgomery-Atmore-Mobile with daily service), we not only improve the quality of life for Alabamians, but also save lives by improving safety. The future of rail as an economic development tool cannot be overstated, and I am grateful to the Riley and Bentley Administrations for the opportunity to serve, and to our loyal supporters such as Secretary of State John Merrill, Congressman Martha Roby and former Congressman Spencer Bachus. I am ever hopeful that, in coming years, that the leadership at both the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and the Alabama Department of Transportation will get on board with our work. Rail is simply too important for our future to overlook.” All aboard, y’all.