High hopes for high-speed rail
September 27, 2009
As key political factors fall in place, Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando are leading contenders to launch the nation's first true high-speed rail corridor, with 150 mph trains running by 2014.
On Friday, 40 states will file detailed high-speed rail project applications with the Federal Railroad Administration. In December, President Barack Obama will announce which will get money from the $787 billion federal stimulus plan to generate jobs.
If Florida gets the $2.5 billion it seeks, it will represent a stunning reversal of political fortunes - after 25 years of promise and setbacks - that will provide thousands of new jobs as early as 2011, when construction on the 95-mile Tampa-Orlando segment could begin.
The Florida funding request also covers planning an Orlando-Miami segment that could complete a 361-mile high-speed rail corridor between Tampa and South Florida in 2017.
That 180 mph-plus East Coast corridor would cost about $8 billion, not including right-of-way purchases. Amtrak could provide additional service from Jacksonville south.
Potential drawbacks - including construction and operations costs and how much demand there might be to pay $30 for a 64-minute ride from Tampa to Orlando International Airport - appear to have been relegated to the background.
Why? The prospects of jobs - at a time when it's common for hundreds of people to vie for a handful of positions.
"High-speed rail will bring an unprecedented number of new jobs to Florida, with the overriding goal of supporting the federal recovery plan," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who has participated in several White House discussions on the topic this year.
"At the same time, anyone who has traveled around the country or to Europe knows how important the investment can be to modernize transportation," she said. "The high-speed rail project can provide a real shot in the arm you don't see happening from real estate."
Estimates by those involved in Florida's previous high-speed rail plans indicate as many as 15,000 construction jobs could be required for the Tampa-Orlando leg. Florida's Department of Transportation estimates more than 20,000 would be created over four years for the Orlando-Miami link.
Interviews with congressional and state officials and local business interests reveal advantages Florida is expected to have when the Obama administration makes its initial funding choices:
•Environmental plans for the Tampa-Orlando corridor are complete, unlike other U.S. corridors.
•Florida is the only state that has acquired a high-speed rail right of way - the median of Interstate 4, estimated to be worth more than $100 billion.
•Construction could begin as early as 2011, providing the Obama administration with potential political gains in an important presidential election swing state.
Forty states are competing for $8 billion. At least $5 billion more from annual federal budgets could be allocated to 10 high-speed corridors nationwide.
Florida's proponents acknowledge the tough competition, but say it is advantageous that their bid covers the construction of the entire project from Tampa to Orlando, unlike states such as California, where state money would be required in addition to federal dollars.
Competitors could seize upon Florida not proposing some state matching money as a point in their favor, said Ross Capon, National Association of Railroad Passengers' executive director. But Capon said another factor - how operational costs would be covered - could play a role. Those details have not been released.
Another advantage for Florida is that its lobbying effort enjoys unusual bipartisan participation. Supporters include the Republican governor; both Florida U.S. senators; eight Democratic and three Republican congressmen; 21 state Republican and seven Democratic legislators; and a broad representation of business groups, the advocacy group FastRailConnectUs.com says.
Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in June made public comments supportive of Florida's rail plans, with LaHood saying Florida and California were leading contenders. LaHood is scheduled to address a transportation conference in Orlando next month.
The business community also has rallied to the cause.
"Our company has a strong interest in transportation initiatives that benefit all sectors of the economy," said Becca Bides, spokeswoman for Busch Entertainment Corp. "As a significant employer in both Orlando and Tampa regions, we also are interested in bettering transportation options for our 11,000 employees."
Disney also sees advantages.
"We are encouraged by the opportunities that high-speed rail could bring to Florida," said Zoraya Suarez, Walt Disney World's manager of media relations. "We would work with local officials to place a station for the new system on or near our property, taking into consideration the needs of both tourists and local residents."
One initial drawback in Tampa and Orlando would be the lack of state-of-the-art mass transit to provide connections to and from high-speed rail in 2014. Hillsborough County's first light rail lines serving downtown would not be possible until 2018 - pending approval of a 1 cent county tax, among other factors.
More than mobility
High-speed rail evokes notions of a fast, comfortable trip commonplace in Europe and Japan, but a recent Washington policy shift emphasizes economic development and wise land use that state-of-the-art local transit and high-speed rail can promote.
"My experience is that an investment in transit intersects with land use and economic development," said G.B. Arrington, a principal with the transportation development firm PB PlaceMaking. Arrington helped write a new Federal Transit Administration policy on ranking transportation projects for funding that took effect in July.
"For places that are successful, it is all about having a long-term vision of a community. Florida's density and activity centers make high-speed rail a logical fit."
That's the groundwork Lakeland businessman Doc Dockery produced in gaining voter approval in 2000 for a constitutional amendment for a high-speed rail system. In 2004, then-Gov. Jeb Bush persuaded voters to remove it.
Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who is leading the high-speed rail lobbying in Florida, has invoked the performance of University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow in his efforts to build support.
"High-speed rail is the Tim Tebow of transportation," Turanchik said. "It's a game changer."
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