Get on board for high-speed rail

Published Tuesday, July 7, 2009

After a quarter-century of effort, Florida is closer than ever to building high-speed rail. This week, the state will begin the process of applying for federal money to build the first leg of the system, from Tampa to Orlando. Federal officials say Florida has a competitive edge; it is more ready to build than almost any other state. It is crucial that Florida's congressional delegation sends a positive message in Washington.

As with many public works projects across the country, the breakthrough for high-speed rail after 20 years of planning in Florida is the sudden availability of federal stimulus money. The Tampa-Orlando line is seen as a top candidate for the $8 billion that President Barack Obama has dedicated for a "world-class" intercity passenger rail service in 10 major corridors eligible across the country. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pointed to Florida and California in May as leading contenders for a slice of the federal rail funds, which the Obama administration would augment with another $1 billion annually for at least five years to get a nationwide network off the ground.

Florida is considered shovel-ready because it has completed the necessary environmental and ridership studies and it owns the necessary right-of-way along Interstate 4, a chronically congested corridor between two growing metropolitan areas. Airplane service for the 90-mile haul between Tampa and Orlando is inconvenient and costly. But travelers on a high-speed train could travel from Tampa to the Orlando International Airport (or the reverse) in 64 minutes for a fare as low as $10. A second phase of the line would extend from Orlando to Miami.

High-speed rail could bring enormous benefits to both the Gulf Coast and Central Florida. It could spur new development, expand the reach of tourism across Florida and help reduce carbon emissions. Rail could enable communities across the state to use their transportation dollars more efficiently.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Winter Park Republican and the ranking minority member of the House Transportation Committee, does not contribute much with his sweeping criticisms. Mica insists that high-speed rail needs a fixed local distribution system — such as light rail or a monorail — to work. This sounds more like sour grapes from a leading proponent of the flawed SunRail commuter rail proposal for Central Florida. Mica is wrong to link the two.

High-speed rail does need a local feeder system. But there is time and there are other options, such as expanding local bus service, to craft a system that works. To her credit, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, sees the bigger picture. There is momentum at the local level for commuter rail in both Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area, and the focus needs to be on not wasting this opportunity to secure federal stimulus dollars.

Mica's correct that having an established track record or even plans for local rail would help Florida's application. It would give the federal government a comfort level in subsidizing an even more ambitious high-speed system. But local rail is not a prerequisite. What federal policymakers are eager to see are a region's unified front, a thoughtful business model and a bang for the federal buck that can extend for years.

Mica can serve his state better by joining the congressional delegation to make Florida's application as strong as possible. And if members can help make the numbers work for local rail projects, too, so much the better. Both would be appropriate responses to a recent Palm Beach Post analysis that found that Florida so far has received fewer stimulus funds per capita than any other state. But to disparage the state's high-speed rail chances before an application is even submitted is definitely not in Florida's interest.

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