Drive begins to win $2.53B for bullet train

By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer

Published Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TAMPA — A statewide organization launched a campaign Tuesday to win $2.53 billion in federal economic stimulus money for a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa and Orlando. Plans call for the line to eventually reach Miami.

Ed Turanchik, a longtime rail supporter and former Hills­borough County commissioner, founded ConnectUs last month.

The group organized events Tuesday in Orlando, Lakeland and Tampa to unveil its efforts.

The Tampa event was hosted by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. Speakers included Michael Ketchum of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce, Joseph Giulietti of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority and Turanchik.

"We're asking Floridians to do one simple thing," Turanchik said — go to the Web site and join the effort.

So far, ConnectUs has raised $50,000 to back its activities. Its board of directors includes business and labor leaders from Tampa, Orlando and Miami.

Business leaders who spoke at Tuesday's event said the rail project is crucial to the state's economic development.

Bill Dever, president of the Florida Gulf Coast Building Trades Council, said it would create many good-paying jobs.

"This is going to put tens of thousands of people to work over the course of time," he said.

The Florida line is considered a top contender for $8 billion in stimulus money attached to President Barack Obama's vision for "world-class passenger rail" in 10 major corridors. Obama has pledged an additional $1 billion for high-speed rail for each of the next five years.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called Florida and California "way ahead of the curve" with their high-speed rail plans, meaning they could quickly meet Obama's goal of creating jobs.

In Florida, environmental and ridership studies have been completed. The right of way for the tracks is largely in place, with plans to run trains in the Interstate 4 median. Land for bullet train stations has been committed in downtown Tampa and Lakeland, Disney World and the Orlando airport.

But Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said Florida's chances might suffer because the state has invested little of its own money in rail.

"There's no way that this money the feds are dishing out is going to fund the whole project. And so the feds are going to be looking at some serious state commitment on funding," he said.

Florida voters in 2000 approved spending for a bullet train for the state. But they squashed it four years later in a repeal vote backed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

In seeking the federal money, the Florida Department of Transportation listed the state's financial commitment at $1 billion, estimating that as the value of state land carved out for high-speed rail tracks.

Competition for the stimulus money is fierce. The Federal Railroad Administration has received 278 advance applications totaling $102 billion.

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