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Bullet train plans shoot through variables

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Proposed routes for an Orlando-to-Miami bullet train varied widely as the Florida High Speed Rail Authority heard proposals Thursday, a wire service reported.

In central Florida, two potential alignments parallel Florida's Turnpike while another runs east from Orlando to Brevard County, then turns south and follows Interstate 95 down the coast. A fourth would start in Polk County, heading southeast on rails currently used by freight carrier CSX until reaching West Palm Beach.

Routes in South Florida could run along I-95, the Turnpike, the Sawgrass Expressway or established rail lines, according to a presentation from HNTB Corp., the Authority's Orlando-based general consulting firm.

Florida must begin building a high-speed rail network, with trains exceeding 120 mph, by November 2003. Two years ago, the state's voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring such a system to be built.

HNTB's presentation Thursday led off a busy day of developments for a proposed bullet-train network spanning Florida.

Most of the Authority's time was spent discussing the first draft of the document that it will send to private companies interested in designing, building, operating and maintaining the state's bullet train system.

The Authority also toured possible sites for stations in Lakeland and learned that motorist surveys began Wednesday for an investment-grade ridership study of a Tampa-to-Orlando line.

The first leg will run from Tampa to Orlando along Interstate 4, with intermediate stops near Lakeland, Disney World and the Orange County Convention Center.

A Tampa-to-St. Petersburg extension will then be built, with construction starting around 2005. Capital costs for the St. Petersburg-Orlando line are estimated at $1.8 billion to $7.2 billion, depending on the technology used. Annual operating and maintenance costs range from $26.2 million to $45.4 million.

The network's second phase is Orlando to Miami.

HNTB came up with its proposed Orlando-Miami routes after reviewing files from the state's last attempt at building fast trains - Florida Overland Express (FOX).

Gov. Jeb Bush ended FOX shortly after taking office in 1999.

Over the next months, HNTB will prepare capital cost and travel time estimates for the potential routes using four types of train technologies. The consulting firm said its planning-level ridership study is about 15 percent complete.

Intermediate stations for the Orlando-Miami route were not proposed, but it was the Authority's consensus that trains also should stop in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

Of HNTB's two proposed alignments using Florida's Turnpike, one would parallel the toll road starting just west of Orlando International Airport.

The other would follow the Beeline Expressway east from the airport before turning south and meeting the turnpike near Yeehaw Junction in southeast Osceola County.

The third proposal would continue the tracks along the Beeline to near Port St. John, then turning south along I-95.

The fourth possibility, using CSX tracks, was Authority member William Dunn's idea to study. That would require trains heading for Miami to backtrack west along I-4 and join the freight carrier's tracks near Haines City.

HNTB said it was going to look at alignments in South Florida that would use rights of way along the interstate and toll roads. But the Authority requested the consultants also study the viability of running along the rail tracks of CSX and Florida East Coast.

The final request for proposal will be issued on Oct. 1, with companies having a Jan. 10, 2003 deadline to respond.

Friday, July 12, 2002

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