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Can link to high-speed rail help sell Florida legislature on SunRail?

(The following story by Dan Tracy appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on August 4, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. — SunRail backers are pushing to link their proposed Central Florida commuter rail to a high-speed train that could serve much of the state.

"We envision a rail system that would connect all of Florida, or the major population centers," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, one of the leading proponents of SunRail.

The tie-in is a relatively new strategy that Dyer hopes will win SunRail approval in the Florida Legislature, which has twice rejected the $1.2 billion proposal.

Dyer said he wants to hook a relatively slow-running SunRail with 17 stops from DeLand through downtown Orlando to Poinciana to a high-speed train capable of going 110 mph or faster that ties Orlando International Airport with Lakeland and Tampa.

The idea is that passengers from one train would feed into the other, increasing ridership for both and creating the start of a regional system.

That notion, Dyer said, makes Florida's high-speed bid much more attractive to the federal government, which has made $8 billion in federal stimulus money available for fast trains across the country.

Rob Kulat, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said he could not speak specifically about Florida's plan but added that his agency favors projects that have "connectivity," or a way to transfer riders to other modes of transit.

"We want the state and region to look at it as a broad program. It's not just one line ... It's connectivity," Kulat said.

The federal DOT will announce its first round of high-speed winners by mid-October, he said. Ten corridors are being considered, including the Orlando-to-Tampa route.

If Florida is picked, construction could begin almost immediately, with service starting in 2014, the state's pre-application says. Florida is seeking as much as $2.5 billion.

SunRail, meanwhile, is stalled in the Legislature, where requests for a state-approved liability policy have been defeated twice. Supporters are seeking another shot at legislators, possibly during a special session this fall, though one has not been set.

Dyer and other supporters hope that the promise of billions in federal money and thousands of construction jobs for both projects will garner the votes necessary to win in Tallahassee.

But high-speed-rail enthusiast C.C. "Doc" Dockery of Lakeland contends it's a mistake to push the ventures as a related package. The two should be considered separately, he said, and rise or fall on their own merits.

"I don't see how you can make the case for connectivity," said Dockery, whose wife, Paula, is the state senator most often credited with stopping SunRail in the Legislature.

SunRail, in Doc Dockery's estimation, would not really tie in with the high-speed train because riders probably would have to ride a bus or taxi several miles between the lines.

"It's just connectivity. That's a new word," said Dockery, who previously served on the Florida High Speed Rail Authority.

Kulat, though, said the trains do not necessarily have to share a terminal to be considered complementary. The key is a convenient connection, he said, not just dumping people into a large parking lot.

Other high-speed-rail corridors being considered include Boston to Washington; Portland to Seattle; and San Diego to San Francisco.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R- Winter Park, said SunRail really helps out Florida's fast-train request because "Orlando is such a central hub geographically and for transportation. You need a regional transportation system to move people around."

Mica and Dyer predict trains eventually could run from Orlando north to Jacksonville and south to Miami.

Only three of the 27 largest metropolitan areas in the country are without a fixed rail system, Mica said. Orlando and Tampa are two, and Cincinnati/Louisville is the third.

SunRail would cost $1.2 billion, with $500 million or more possibly coming from the federal government. The first 31 miles, from south Volusia County to Sand Lake Road in Orange, could be up and running in 2012, with the remainder in 2014.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

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