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Rail bill puts Florida on right the track

(The following story by Ted Jackovics and Catherine Dolinski appeared on the Tampa Tribune website on December 10, 2009.)

TAMPA, Fla. — Anyone setting odds on Florida's chances next month to get as much as $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money to build a Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail line might consider this:

When the Florida Senate on Tuesday joined the Florida House in passing a sweeping passenger rail bill, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, were enjoying a private chat in Washington, their fourth in recent days.

The bill creates a much broader opportunity for state prospects than might be obvious, said Mica, an influential transportation advocate on Capitol Hill.

In addition to enhancing prospects for a Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail route by 2014 that could create some 15,000 construction jobs, the bill could improve chances for local light rail that would connect with the high-speed service, Mica and other local officials said Wednesday.

"This is the finest blueprint for transportation ever passed in Florida," Mica said in a phone interview from Washington. "It can serve as a model for around the country."

LaHood in October said Florida support for commuter projects in Orlando and South Florida could weigh in the competition among 24 states for high speed rail stimulus funds, as it would show a commitment to rail Florida previously lacked.

Mica said LaHood, also a Republican, teased him Tuesday, asking what he could do to help.

"All I need is a vote from the Florida Legislature," Mica responded. And that he got.

Mica expressed confidence in Florida's chances for high-speed rail funding, although he said he wouldn't be surprised if winning states don't get all they sought.

The Legislature's bill supports commuter rail lines in Orlando and South Florida, creates a state rail agency and resolves commuter rail liability issues with freight carrier CSX.

Bob Clifford, executive director for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, said momentum is being created because the state has finally taken the transportation issue beyond just talking about a plan to actually being able to implement one.

"From a statewide perspective, it means being able to put dollars behind it," he said.

The bill, which Gov. Charlie Crist supports, will send a strong message to the federal government that Florida has a vision for rail and is building a statewide system, said Stuart Rogel, president and chief executive of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which oversees economic development for a seven-county area.

"As we move ahead and voters are asked to decide how to invest their resources, we will already be seeing the benefits of federal investments," he said.

The bill did not pass without criticism from legislators, who argued that CSX was getting paid too much for the 61-mile Central Florida line that could begin in 2012.

In addition, critics contend the bill conceded too much to CSX on liability issues, which primarily will be assumed by the state for CSX-related accidents

However, Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner who heads the ConnectUS lobbying group for Florida's high-speed rail proposal, said the deal will create a framework for TBARTA light-rail plans that could rely on little used freight tracks.

The bill, he said, "sets the rules."

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, said he thinks taking "an assertive step forward towards moving state policy in the direction of mass transit," is good for the Tampa Bay region.

Crist said he doesn't know if local transit projects are going to zoom ahead now, as some people hope, however, because state revenue is expected to continue shrinking over the next few years as federal stimulus dollars dry up.

"Next year ... there will be no stimulus money ... the state will have to fund only its core missions, and transfer all of the remaining shortfall to the local governments," he said.

However, the legislative approval signals an interest in transit and rail and shows a desire to be competitive for federal funds, said Steve Polzin, director of mobility policy for the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research.

"High-speed rail will similarly send a strong, symbolic message of a growing interest in alternative transportation options and in that way will be complementary to local initiatives."

Late Tuesday night, after the Legislature passed its bill, congressional budget negotiators agreed to spend $40 million to jump-start the SunRail project in Orlando, with $26 million previously approved. Ultimately, Congress is expected to approve $178 million for SunRail, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said.

An additional $1.7 million will go toward planning light rail in Tampa along with $4 million to expand Metrorail, which serves Miami, Nelson said.

"Talk about back-to-back great news for Floridians who are tired of traffic jams - this is it," Nelson said about the federal money and the state bill. "The miracle of miracles has happened."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

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