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Fla. Congressman gives commuter rail a push

(The Orlando Sentinel posted the following story by Scott Powers on its website on July 15.)

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The agency that runs commuter-rail trains in South Florida might become a surrogate mother to a train that could one day run in Central Florida.

The Florida Department of Transportation wants to move ahead with plans to purchase a prototype commuter train manufactured by Colorado Railcar and has arranged for Tri-Rail of South Florida to test it on its West Palm Beach-to-Miami line.

If the train works in Miami, and Central Florida pulls together a commuter-rail system in the next few years, then the train would be brought here to run on existing tracks between DeLand and downtown Orlando.

The strategy, pushed by U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, could shave years off federal timetables while the region contemplates piecing together a train system to carry commuters between western Volusia and Seminole counties and Orlando.

"We're several steps closer to making commuter rail a reality here in Central Florida," Mica said.

Plenty of uncertainties remain. State and area leaders in Central Florida would have to form a local rail authority such as Tri-Rail. They would have to negotiate with CSX Transportation to use that company's commercial railroad tracks and make arrangements with cities such as DeLand, Winter Park and Orlando to create up to a dozen stops. And the local agency would have to come up with the bulk of the $150 million to pay for a full commuter-rail system.

Even Mica, long an active and outspoken proponent of such a system, does not envision anything running before late 2005.

Mica, a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has been pushing to get a commuter-rail system for the area since Orange County's efforts to plan and build a light-rail system -- which requires separate railroad tracks -- collapsed in a political squabble in 1999.

He insists a small system could be put together quickly and easily on existing tracks, perhaps with three trains heading downtown in the morning, and back to DeLand in the evening. But neither CSX nor local communities have signed on.

Last fall, when Mica got permission to put a Colorado Railcar train on CSX for a demonstration, CSX officials insisted that while they allowed the demonstration, that should not signal the company has any commitment to actually installing the train. CSX wants to be sure commuter trains would not get in the way of freight business.

On Monday, FDOT District Secretary Mike Snyder said he has opened talks with CSX, but no negotiations could start until the department finishes a study.

Still, Mica and Snyder announced a couple of new financial prospects Monday that could boost the pot of available federal and state money to $13 million. That could be enough to buy the demo Colorado Railcar train for Miami that could eventually become Orlando's first train.

The commuter-rail system being proposed -- which eventually could extend to Kissimmee -- differs from the light-rail system also discussed for Orlando. Commuter trains are comparable in size to normal trains and run on standard tracks.

Last year, Mica secured $4 million in federal money that could be available for Central Florida to buy its first train. On Monday, Snyder said FDOT is prepared to match that with $4 million in state money. Mica also announced Monday that he got another $5 million written into the latest federal budget bill, which moved out of the transportation appropriations subcommittee Friday.

Snyder's office in DeLand is overseeing a major study that would project the general costs and prospects for a commuter-rail system. That study should be done by the end of the year, he said.Initial estimates for the entire Central Florida project have ranged from $150 million for what was described as a bare-bones train that could run during rush hours to $550 million for a full-service, top-quality system.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

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