$800 million granted to rail project

By TED JACKOVICS | The Tampa Tribune

October 18,2010
Florida's high-speed rail project gained additional momentum Monday when the Obama administration awarded the state $800 million that essentially completes funding to build the Tampa-to-Orlando route by 2015.Florida also got $8 million to plan the extension of high-speed rail between Orlando and Miami.

If full funding eventually comes, that would allow those taking the train to travel between the Tampa Bay area and South Florida in 3 hours and 15 minutes by 2018, creating competition with airlines and providing a realistic option to highways and interstates.

"This makes Florida the nation's leader in modernizing transportation," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. "People are already at work on the Tampa-to-Orlando segment, and workshops are under way for small-business owners to tap into new business opportunities."

The new grant to buy train sets, lay track and build stations from Tampa to Orlando follows the $1.25 billion down payment Obama announced in Tampa in January to launch high-speed rail nationwide.

Florida took the lead in high-speed rail funding because its project ?? unlike other states ?? had acquired a right-of-way for track, which will run in the median of Interstate 4. Equally important was stimulus fund job creation in a high-stakes political state.

"Other states argued that Florida should get less than the $800 million, but we prevailed because we were well-prepared," said Castor, who got the news Monday morning from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a Republican appointment by Obama.

Florida in August sought $1.1 billion from a $2.3 billion federal pool of money. The remainder of what might be needed could come from federal funds next year, said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida. Private companies that win a stake in the project could invest up to $500 million.

Between fall 2012 and 2014, nearly 10,000 employees will work directly on the construction project, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. The system will employ about 600 people to operate and create another 500 indirect jobs, DOT said.

Crews are working on a $66 million engineering contract along the Interstate 4 median where the trains will travel at nearly 170 mph, powered by overhead electrical wires.

Five "early works" contracts worth $170 million will be advertised for bid beginning next month. Firms will be selected in 2011 for projects including realigning small segments of I-4, replacing drains and culverts, and relocating overhead signs and lighting.

Once those contractors are selected, job seekers can find links to them on the DOT website at flhsr.squarespace.com/general-employment.

The bulk of the new jobs will be created after a contractor is selected in 2011 to design, build, operate and maintain the system. At least eight teams with rail and construction experience are shaping up to compete for the Tampa-Orlando phase and earn first rights to head the Orlando-Miami segment.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, said the new grant would require 20 percent matching funds from state or local governments "While this additional federal assistance for the project is a substantial amount of funding, a referendum next Tuesday will determine whether the Tampa Bay region will move forward with developing mass transit connections to the rail project," Mica said.

"The Orlando-to-Tampa project will be the first new intercity passenger rail project built in the U.S. in decades, and it must be financially viable and connect into regional fixed transit systems."

The grant announcement gives local voters even more of an incentive to approve the countywide transportation system, said David Singer, who heads the Moving Hillsborough Forward campaign to support a 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase to fund light rail and bus and road improvements.

"This will connect all of us and truly make Hillsborough County the economic comeback story of the decade ?? with greatly expanded bus services and light rail options in Tampa to the airport, USF area, Sun City Center, Plant City and everywhere in between, along with high speed rail to Orlando and beyond," Singer said.

tjackovics@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7817

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