Rail is right for Florida

By Mike Fasano, special to the Times

Published Friday, December 4, 2009

Transportation — moving people and freight — is an essential ingredient for a strong economy. The time has come to recognize that we must complement our existing road systems with rail alternatives. This is vital as we seek to renew our urban industrial centers and build a stronger future for Florida.

In order to accomplish this, we must transform the way Florida thinks about transportation. Fifty years ago, with the creation of the interstate highway system and the Florida Turnpike, the nation and the state took a new direction in transportation. Today, with more than 94.9 million vehicle miles traveled on Florida's interstates and more than 21 million on the turnpike daily, it is hard to imagine traveling through Florida without using one of these roads.

But Florida has a finite capacity to develop and expand roads. If we are to meet our obligation of providing a safe and secure transportation system, we must identify alternative transportation methods.

We also have the opportunity to create much needed jobs at a time when Florida's unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation. Many Floridians are struggling; almost a million are experiencing the pain of unemployment. Infrastructure projects are the best economic stimulus. They create jobs immediately, with the potential for many more in the future, and they strengthen Florida's ability to compete in the global economy.

Many citizens have voiced their desire for passenger rail specifically connecting our Tampa Bay area to Orlando and other major Florida cities. The construction of passenger rail will create a significant amount of jobs and economic stimulus for the Tampa Bay area and the I-4 corridor.

At a time of high unemployment, capitalizing on opportunities such as this benefits our entire state. A rail corridor between two of Florida's largest urban centers, Orlando and Tampa, will streamline transportation, commerce and tourism, creating the 15th largest market in the United States and tens of thousands of jobs.

The legislation before us today during the Legislature's special session is the first step in creating a comprehensive passenger rail system in Florida. It establishes a framework for future development and a funding mechanism for developing and operating passenger rail systems throughout the state.

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority would be eligible to receive up to $60 million per year for its continued efforts to bring a commuter rail alternative serving Tampa Bay residents.

Investing in a passenger rail is synonymous with investing in the future of Florida. The state's elected officials must decide between maintaining the status quo or establishing a foundation for a viable transportation system that provides our future generations with the infrastructure necessary to continue economic development, meet the challenges of tomorrow's global economy and pursue success in their families, businesses and communities.

Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is president pro tempore of the Florida Senate.