Amtrak Could Soon Roll Down Atlantic Coast
The wheels on an eight-year effort to expand Amtrak service along Florida’s eastern seaboard are moving again thanks to a pre-application for federal stimulus money filed by the Department of Transportation.
In addition to requesting $2.5 billion for the first leg of a proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train and $432 million for the controversial SunRail Orlando commuter train plan, the DOT submitted a request for $70 million for passenger service between Jacksonville and Miami that would operated by Amtrak. The state is competing for $8 billion that was included in the stimulus package for high speed rail, though the proposed east coast route wouldn’t be used by the fastest trains.
DOT rail manager Fred Wise said that the money would allow Amtrak to split its New York to Miami train route into the existing route, which veers through Central Florida, and a straight south route that includes eight proposed new stations along the Atlantic Coast.
Two of the “Silver Star” and “Silver Meteor” trains will continue along the current inland route through Lakeland and Tampa before arriving head back toward Miami. Two others will head straight south through Daytona Beach, Wise said.
The new trains would run along the Florida East Coast Railway until they reach West Palm Beach, when they will use tracks currently used by Tri-Rail in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.
Stations would be built in St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Titusville, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Vero Beach, Fort Pierce, and Stuart, Wise said. A connection between the East Coast Railway tracks and the Tri-Rail tracks would also be built.
The trains will be operated under a liability agreement reached between Amtrak and the East Coast Railway company that does not involve the state, unlike other controversial intra-city rail projects, Wise added. It would also not require any state money if the stimulus application is used, another hurdle that has put the brakes on rail development in the state recently.
Wise added that a lot of the work for the project was done when it was originally proposed in 2001, before Amtrak experienced financial trouble and halted service expansion.
“We’ll get credit for investments we’ve made and investments the local governments have made,” Wise told the News Service of Florida in an interview Thursday. “In some instances, the local government has already bought the right-of-way (to build stations) and back in ’01 and ’02 we worked with some communities on station locations and designs.”
If the final stimulus application, which is due Oct. 2, is approved, Wise said the new Amtrak trains could be running in the fall of 2012. It would benefit Tri-Rail too, he added, because the South Florida rail system would be able to be extended.
“The crossover at West Palm Beach (is) going to allow them to extend service to Jupiter, which they are anxious to do once they get their funding situation worked out,” Wise said.
Transportation advocate Doug Callaway cheered the proposed Amtrak proposal, which had been in the shadow of the higher profile SunRail and bullet train proposals. Callaway, president of Floridians for Better Transportation, said any improvements to transportation in Florida are good ones.
It makes sense for Amtrak to run down the Atlantic Coast, he added, noting that the system’s most popular routes outside of the Northeast are the ones to Florida.
“Most people when you ask them about Amtrak probably already think you can go straight from Jacksonville to Miami,” Callaway said. “I’m kind of surprised that it doesn’t already go down the coastline like I-95.”
Some critics have said that the DOT should have focused on one rail project in its stimulus application to avoid diluting its chances of success, but Callaway said the requests could roll side-by-side.
“I think Florida’s mature enough to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “I think can we can pursue multiple objectives at the same time and be still be effective.”
Unrelated to the stimulus application, Amtrak is also considering restoring service through the Florida Panhandle that has been inactive since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A report by the rail company to Congress suggested the possibility of restoring the Amtrak “Sunset Limited” between Los Angeles and Orlando, which included stops in Pensacola and Tallahassee.
Resurrecting a Chicago to Orlando route and starting an overnight route between New Orleans and Orlando were also mentioned in the report. The effort is being supported by U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla.