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SW Florida years away in high-speed rail plans

NAPLES, Fla. -- Construction on a new high speed rail line that will link the five largest urban areas of Florida will start within the next year when construction begins to link Orlando and Tampa Bay, the Naples Daily News reported.

But it will be years before the high speed rail reaches Naples and Fort Myers. Those two cities are not in the first two phases of the state's high speed rail plan.

"I think we've bitten off as much as we can chew now," said Norman Mansour, secretary of the Florida High Speed Rail Authority in explaining why Naples, Fort Myers and cities like Jacksonville and Tallahassee are not in the first two phases of the state plan.

The state's tentative plan is to begin phase one by constructing a high speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa Bay while going through Lakeland. Construction will begin on this section by November 2003 and conclude in 2008.

Phase one will also see the state construct a rail line from Tampa to St. Petersburg. That line would be completed in 2009 with construction beginning in 2005.

Phase two would then involve constructing a rail line from Orlando to Miami. This rail line will probably go through Fort Pierce, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

Construction on phase two would begin in 2006 and be done in 2010.

The cost of phase one and phase two have not yet been determined.

High speed rail authority officials say they are not sure which cities will get hooked up in phase three.

The state does have a vision map that anticipates all the cities that eventually would be hooked up to high speed rail. Naples and Fort Myers are on the map along with Sarasota, Bradenton, Ocala, Gainesville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Daytona Beach and Cocoa Beach.

"The goal is to have high speed rail hook up all of Florida," Mansour said.

This long-range map has the rail line heading south from Tampa to hook up Bradenton, Sarasota, Fort Myers and Naples. It will then go over Alligator Alley and hook up with Fort Lauderdale.

Two years ago 53 percent of Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that said construction of a high-speed rail system that travels more than 120 mph and goes to the five largest urban areas of the state must begin by the end of 2003.

The amendment was opposed by most state lawmakers because it didn't say how rail service would be funded. Preliminary estimates have the cost being between $12 billion and $20 billion. Nazih Haddad, staff director for the Florida High Speed Rail Commission, said the state will have a ridership study completed by the end of November that will determine what the need for high speed rail is.

Early next year the Authority will begin accepting bids from private companies that want to partner with the state to build the rail line.

"We are looking for a private partner that will design, build and run the high speed rail," Mansour said. "We're not saying what type of high speed rail we want. We're letting companies come to us."

The rail system would be run as a for profit business.

"It would be foolish to assume the private sector will do this without the possibility of profit," Mansour said.

The cost of building the high speed rail is still uncertain but Mansour said any company contracted to build the rail system will have to come up with a fixed, set price on how much construction would cost.

The state estimates that it will cost about $1.3 billion to construct the rail system from Orlando to Tampa as a steel-wheel, steel-rail system, Haddad said.

Florida also will look for funding help from the federal government.

"Federal funding is essential," Mansour said. "It is also totally unknown and undefined. But we do anticipate favorable funding programs."

The state's goal is to have the Legislature approve a contract with a private company to build the rail line between Tampa and Orlando by November 2003.

State officials say having the contract signed is all that is needed to meet the constitutional amendment requirement that construction begin by the end of 2003.

The Legislature will make final funding decisions on building the rail.

"Our responsibility is to come up with the best available plan," Mansour said. "The Legislature will then determine where the funding will come from. This will all be dealt with in the 2003 legislative session."

The state has allocated $12 million to the Florida High Speed Rail Commission since the constitutional amendment was passed. The money has gone toward setting up the rail commission and conducting ridership and feasibility studies. Haddad said there is a need for rail service in the state.

"We have a population of over 16 million and that will soon be 20 million," Haddad said. "There are also 60 to 70 million tourists that visit this state each year." The permanent and tourist populations make it difficult for the state roads because many Florida residents drive a car.

"We are a single transportation mode state when it comes to in-state transportation," Haddad said. "About 99 percent of the population uses cars when it travels within the state."

The rail system should ease congestion on overcrowded Florida roads.

"The highway capacity can't increase as fast as Florida is growing," Haddad said. "We need to give people an alternative means of travel."

Haddad estimates that about 10 percent of the people who now travel the roads will use the rail system instead.

The fare to travel on high speed rail will probably be between $25 and $30. But it will be up to the company contracted to run the rail system to set the price, Haddad said.

High speed rail is different from commuter rail and light rail.

Light rail operates like a bus system in that it would take you from one part of a town to an area. You would get on a light rail system to take travel two or three miles.

Commuter rail usually takes you from the suburbs into a city and back again.

High speed rail takes you longer distances. For example, you wouldn't take high speed rail to get from Naples to Bonita Springs. You would board high speed rail to go from Naples to Miami, Jacksonville or Tallahassee.

Monday, November 18, 2002

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