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Florida to get high speed rail cash

(The following story by Mark K. Matthews and Dan Tracy appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on January 28, 2010.)

ORLANDO, Fla. — President Barack Obama is coming to Tampa today to announce that Florida will get about half of the $2.6 billion in federal cash it wants to build a high-speed train linking Orlando and Tampa.

Florida is in line for $1.25 billion for the 84-mile project, according to the White House.

A total of $8 billion will be handed out to Florida and 12 other places for fast trains, but no single grant will be for more than half of the original request.

Still, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., predicted, "This will be one of the largest boosts to the state's economy since Disney, since the interstate highway system."

Obama touted the funding in his State of the Union speech: "Next, we can put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow. From the first railroads to the interstate-highway system, our nation has always been built to compete. There's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains, or the new factories that manufacture clean-energy products. Tomorrow, I'll visit Tampa, Florida, where workers will soon break ground on a new high-speed railroad funded by the Recovery Act. There are projects like that all across this country that will create jobs and help move our nation's goods, services and information."

The state contends the fully funded project could create 23,000 construction and 1,000 professional-service jobs.

Ed Turanchik, who runs ConnectUs, a Tampa-based group lobbying for the train, said the state should take whatever is offered and worry about getting the rest later.

"You can't spend $2.6 billion in one year," he said.

According to the White House, the Florida rail money would be used to "initiate the development of the Tampa to Orlando segment" with "intermediate service to several of central Florida's major tourist destinations."

The state ultimately would like to include a high-speed route to Miami as well, and the White House said it aims for a 230-mile line between Orlando and Miami that would be completed by 2017.

Speculation that Florida would be granted money has been rampant for weeks but reached a fever pitch Friday when the White House said Obama was coming to Tampa but would not reveal why.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who's attending the Obama event, said he is not worried about Florida getting less than its entire request, predicting more money will be available in coming years. Congress is expected to set aside an additional $5 billion for high-speed rail in future budgets.

As proposed, the train would start at Orlando International Airport and run along the BeachLine Expressway and Interstate 4 until stopping in Tampa, a little past Ybor City. It would have stops at the Orange County Convention Center, Walt Disney World (near Celebration) and Lakeland.

No train type has been chosen, though the state prefers a train powered by electricity, most likely from overhead lines, records indicate.

It could reach a top speed of 160 mph, the state estimates, because the route is essentially flat and straight once it moves along I-4. A nonstop run from OIA to Tampa would take about 44 minutes, as opposed to as much as an hour and a half by car.

Design work and construction could start late this year or early in 2011. Operations could begin in early 2015.

Ridership is pegged at 1.9 million per year to as much as 3 million, the higher side dependent on how many tourists headed to Disney and International Drive take the train rather than rent a car or catch a taxi or bus.

Disney has promised to support the train and has offered up to 50 acres of free land for a station. For years, Disney had wanted any train that might be built to take a straight shot from Orlando International Airport to its parks, with no other stations.

A long list of politicians and dignitaries has been invited to Tampa, including Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for the Senate seat vacated by Orlando lawyer Mel Martinez. Crist, according to a poll this week, is virtually tied in the Republican primary with former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said the governor would meet with Obama at the Tampa airport this morning when Air Force One touches down but wouldn't be accompanying the president to his announcement.

It's the first time the governor has appeared with the president since the much-maligned hug he gave President Obama when he endorsed the economic-stimulus plan in Fort Myers last February.

Many conservatives are backing Rubio, in part because they contend Crist has been too cooperative with Obama.

Among those expected to attend the event at the University of Tampa is C.C. "Doc" Dockery of Lakeland. Dockery, whose wife is state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, has been promoting high-speed rail for decades.

He even spent $3 million of his own money getting an amendment to the state constitution passed in 2002 calling for the construction of a fast train from Tampa to Orlando. That amendment was struck down three years later in a drive led by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Dockery said he is ecstatic that Obama intends to start the train rolling.

"I think it's absolutely fantastic," said Dockery, a retired insurance magnate. "I share the hopes and dreams of a lot of people that it is happening."

The state expects the train could actually turn a small profit after operating and maintenance and replacement costs are counted.

Annual revenue is supposed to be $53 million, with expenses coming in at a little more than $52 million. No debt payments are included because the stimulus money could cover construction and the initial equipment costs.

An updated fare structure was not available, but a 2002 state estimate pegged one-way tickets from OIA to I-Drive at $10; to Disney, $12; to Lakeland, $22; and $29 to Tampa. People who used the train to commute would have the price cut by about 67 percent.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

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