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On track for hiring: 2 Florida rail projects to bring jobs later this year

(The following story by Dan Tracy appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on February 21, 2010.)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Jobs. Thousands of them. That's one of the main ways supporters pitched the two trains heading for Orlando.

"A lot of people have inquired," said state Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Olson. "That's what it's about, jobs. They want this thing to happen right now."

So when will the hiring begin?

Looks like it could be a while yet. The best guess is contractors will begin adding to the payroll late summer or early fall, with the rate of employment increasing into 2011 and beyond.

"We're moving as fast as we can. It hasn't been for lack of trying," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, whose city is one of the sponsors of the SunRail commuter train.

The key is just how quickly the $4.4 billion that been promised to build SunRail and high-speed rail ends up in Tallahassee, the headquarters of the state DOT, which is overseeing both projects.

Millions of dollars – $44 million to be exact – already has been spent on SunRail, the first phase of which would connect DeBary in Volusia County with downtown Orlando and Sand Lake Road in south Orange County. Most of the jobs – spread over 60 contracts – were filled by consultants drawing up plans and completing studies.

Much of the preliminary legwork for the high speed train, which would link Orlando International Airport with Lakeland and downtown Tampa, has been handled mostly by state officials. They relied in part on work done previously at the behest of the now disbanded High Speed Rail Authority.

Right now, SunRail is ahead of high speed when it comes to hiring because two major construction contractors have been selected to build the 61.5-mile corridor: Archer Western of Chicago and RailWorks, a national firm with an office in Jacksonville. High speed does not have any contractors.

But SunRail will not start hiring until it gets a document from the federal government that essentially says all the necessary paperwork has been filled out correctly and approved. State and city officials speculate that won't happen until late this summer.

Once the so-called full funding agreement is recorded, the state can expect close to $130 million to be released to it in stages from the federal government. That would be added to the $44 million already sent from Washington, D.C., bringing the total to around $174 million, or more than half of the $300 million total expected.

Once the federal money is released, another $300 million from the state and Orlando, Orange, Seminole, Volusia and Osceola counties will be freed up for construction. The state also is paying $432 million to CSX for the tracks upon which SunRail will run for other improvements to the railroad system. An additional $200 million will be spent by the state upgrading five road-rail interchanges.

High-speed rail, conversely, is waiting for $1.25 billion from the federal government, which is about half of the $2.6 billion the state requested to build the project. No one is quite sure when that money will be turned loose, though design and construction is expected to start next year.

Once the money is flowing, SunRail proponents maintain that 6,700 construction jobs could be created by the train. High-speed rail, meanwhile, envisions about 23,000 construction-related jobs. Both maintain thousands more jobs will be spun on for development spurred the trains.

Among the jobs that would be posted and filled during the process would be: Asphalt contractors and workers to construct station parking lots; building trades workers and managers to build the stations; computer technicians for control center and other locations; control center workers (dispatch area) and managers; custodial staff; design engineers; technicians to install fire sprinklers at the stations; geotechnical staff/engineers; heavy equipment/construction equipment operators; locomotive engineers and workers on board the trains; and maintenance staff for the track and signals.

The train systems also will need mechanics to maintain the locomotives and passenger cars; plumbers to install water lines at the stations; public involvement workers to educate constituents about safety; safety personnel-including corridor safety and station security; signal workers to install and maintain the signals along the corridor; surveyors; workers to install track, ballast (rocks) ties, and other assignments along the corridor; and drivers to bring product to the construction sites.

Since Florida is a right-to-work state, jobs could be filled by union workers or those unaffiliated with collective bargaining agents. The decision to hire union workers, at least with SunRail, would be up to the contractors actually doing the work. Most of the high-speed jobs are expected to go union because of federal regulations.

Union wages generally are higher than those paid to non-union employees, leading one area construction worker to worry about the future pay scale for the trains, particularly SunRail.

A 31-year veteran of Central Florida's construction industry, the worker – who asked that his name not be used for fear of offending potential employers – said he worries that wages will be kept artificially low to win bids or to increase the profits of the contractor.

Non-union wages, he said, typically range from $12 to $18 in the area, depending on the job and experience. That's not enough, he said, for a worker to spend on extras likely to stimulate the economy.

"You've got to go to work every day," the carpenter and masonry expert said. "You can never get ahead. We don't have the extra money."

Rich Templin, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO in Tallahassee, said the unions are "working on trying to figure out" how the hiring will be done and the wage scales.

"From floor to ceiling," Templin said, "we expect to have people participating in the process."

SunRail is supposed to begin operations in late 2014, with the second phase, including stops in Poinciana in Osceola and DeLand in Volusia, ready a year later. The high-speed train is set to start in late 2014 or early 2015.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

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