Florida Getting Federal Cash for High Speed Rail
Florida will receive federal money for a high speed train between Orlando and Tampa, U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and George LeMieux said Wednesday.
The formal announcement, expected Thursday during President Barack Obama's post-State of the Union visit to Tampa, comes weeks after state lawmakers approved a sweeping rail package to allow for the development of the SunRail commuter train in Orlando and provide about $15 million to the cash-strapped Tri-Rail train in South Florida.
Lawmakers hoped passing that legislation would work in their favor as they try to secure $2.5 billion in federal stimulus money for a Tampa to Orlando high speed corridor, the first leg of a long-proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train route.
Neither senator said Wednesday how much of Florida’s $2.5 billion request would be granted. They also said they were unsure about the fate to two other requests: $70 million for Atlantic Coast Amtrak passenger service between Jacksonville and Miami and $432 million for buying existing freight tracks for SunRail from CSX Corp.
State transportation officials also remained mum, saying that they were awaiting the big announcement like everyone. But Nelson, a Democrat, and LeMieux, a Republican, did not wait to hail the decision to award Florida the rail money.
“This will be one of the largest boosts to the state’s economy since Disney, since the interstate highway system,” Nelson said in a statement.
“This will be a transformative project for Florida,” LeMieux quickly followed in a statement of his own. “It will connect Tampa and Orlando making it a mega region, making travel between the two cities much easier.”
“I’ve got my fingers crossed that the President’s going to award Florida the full $2.5 billion,” said LeMieux, adding that any rail award Thursday would be a “testament to people in politics working in the right way.”
“Democrats and Republicans, local, state, and federal folks pulled together to get these needed dollars for Florida,” he said.
The Florida high speed rail corridor was one of 10 identified by the White House last spring for the beginning of a national network. Competing links include California between Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego, the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf Coast between Houston and Atlanta, Chicago, the southeastern U.S. between Washington, D.C. and Georgia, the south Central U.S. between Tulsa and Texas, Pennsylvania between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, New York between New York City and upstate New York and New England.
Even before the lawmakers approved the state rail bill, the Tampa-Orlando-Miami route was thought to be a prohibitive favorite because much of the preliminary surveying had been done when the plan was approved by voters in 2000 and the Florida High Speed Rail Authority was created in 2002. Federal transportation officials, however, hinted that a commuter rail deal was necessary before the state would be given any of the stimulus rail money.
One of Florida largest labor unions joined LeMieux and Nelson in lauding Obama’s expected announcement.
“We completely support high speed rail for Florida,” Florida AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin told the News Service of Florida Wednesday. “The state could use the high skill high wage jobs it would bring and Floridians would have a reliable system of public transportation.”
After the rail bill was passed last month, supporters said it cleared the way for the announcement expected Thursday. The union was initially opposed to the SunRail bill, but turned around on the plan after receiving commitments that it would protect union jobs.
But on the eve of the announcement that could prove them right, Templin said the connection might not have been as firm as supporters argued.
“We were never convinced that if we didn’t get the SunRail we wouldn’t get the high speed rail money but we also knew it would help,” Templin said.
The leading Senate Sunrail critic said the expected windfall for Florida had not changed her position on SunRail.
“The (Sunrail) bill that was passed in special session had absolutely nothing to do with high speed rail,” state Senate and Republican gubernatorial candidate Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said after addressing newspaper editors and reporters in Tallahassee Wednesday. “The bill that passed this last session was a very brilliant attempt by the proponents of SunRail to get SunRail, which was unpopular, passed by tying it to ‘we must do this to get high-speed rail funding.’”
“That was never the case,” Dockery continued. “The comments made by Secretary LaHood were always about the state of Florida needs to get its act together in terms of funding Tri-Rail.
Dockery said she expects Florida to get about $1.6 billion of the requested $2.5 billion. If the high speed rail application is approved, construction on the Tampa-Orlando segment is scheduled to begin in late 2014 and the second segment by late 2017.