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Key to Central Florida’s high speed rail's success is in the details

(The following story by Tom Palmer appeared on The Ledger website on March 24, 2010.)

LAKELAND, Fla. — If high-speed rail and all of the planned transit connections that will make it work effectively are to succeed, Central Florida's leaders have to get the details and the facts right.

That was the message business and civic leaders from Tampa to Orlando heard Wednesday morning at The Lakeland Center during the first of three planned briefings this spring on the status of the Florida high-speed rail project.

Work is under way to develop the first phase between downtown Tampa and Orlando International Airport following the award of $1.25 billion in federal stimulus funds in January by President Barack Obama.

Some construction work may begin as early as next March, said Nazih Haddad, chief operating officer of the Florida Department of Transportation's Florida Rail Enterprise.

The line is expected to begin operations in 2015.

He said federal scrutiny of this project will be "strong" because this is the first high-speed rail project in the United States.

That scrutiny will include a consultant hired by the Federal Railroad Administration, Haddad said.

But now that high-speed rail is moving from a concept to reality in Florida, some things have changed, key officials told the crowd of about 150 that attended the briefing.

"We need to get the details right," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said, explaining that means how people get to their destinations once they get off at the high-speed rail station.

Iorio said it's also important to have a set of agreed-upon facts so that the message is consistent.

She said that's particularly important with job numbers, explaining local officials should do their own research and not rely on federal stimulus job projections.

Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields, a longtime advocate of taking a regional approach to transit issues, said the information-sharing was valuable.

"It's good for all of us to get the same information at the same time,'' he said.

Critical articles on high-speed rail in general and Florida's high-speed rail project in particular have been published in national media, including a piece this week in The New York Times, which questioned the justification of the Florida project.

Fields said leaders need to do a better job of communicating the importance of this venture, which he and others stressed is not about transportation so much as a way to further the region's economic development and competitiveness in the global marketplace.
He said that is especially important in dealing with the transit tax referendums later this year in Polk and Hillsborough counties.

"We've got to get people to quit thinking of this as the government asking for a tax in these economic times and get them to think of this as an investment in the future," he said.

Fields predicted that if there's support, it will be possible within the next five years to get from Polk County to Tampa or Orlando easily without driving through the new transit network envisioned for the region.

In addition to high-speed rail, the system would include expanded bus transit, commuter rail and light rail.

Following the formal presentations, some other issues surfaced.

Laurie MacDonald of Defenders of Wildlife asked what provisions are planned for wildlife corridors.

That will be part of the study, Shelley Lauten of myregion.org said.
Lakeland businessman Bill Mutz asked how rail officials would handle the mix of business travelers and tourists.

DOT's Haddad said they have been studying how to handle baggage.
Security for the high-speed rail line will be handled by the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration. Homeland Security's John Daly told the group that his agency is working on procedures, but he provided no details on what passengers can expect.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

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