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State Hopes For More Federal Rail Money

A day after the national attention that came from President Barack Obama’s visit to Florida to announce the state would receive $1.25 billion for high speed rail between Tampa and Orlando faded away, state transportation officials were left trying to figure out if the remainder of the $2.6 billion they requested for the project might be on the next train.

Also, with federal officials having divvied up the full $8 billion included in last year’s federal economic stimulus bill for 13 projects in 31 states, Florida could only assume separate applications for $270 million for Atlantic Coast Amtrak passenger service and $268 million for buying existing freight tracks for SunRail from CSX Corp. had been rejected.

However, Transportation Assistant Secretary for Engineering and Operations Kevin Thibault said the state was hanging hopes for more money later on Vice President Joe Biden’s description of the rail awards Thursday as a “down payment” on a national high-speed rail network.

“We haven’t gotten any guidance yet on the $1.25 billion and what that’s going to do for us,” Thibault said in a telephone interview with the News Service of Florida Friday. “You heard Vice President Joe Biden say this was a ‘down payment,’ so there may be a plan they haven’t shared with us. There may be other pots of money they plan to give us.”

“Once we have that, we’ll have a better idea of where we go from here,” Thibault continued.

Florida was one of 10 high speed rail corridors identified by the White House last spring for the beginning of a national network and the state was one of the biggest rail money winners, trailing only California. However, federal officials said they received requests totaling $55 billion for the $8 billion pool of money, so they had to make tough choices. Officials in Georgia complained this week about receiving only $750,000 for feasibility studies from the stimulus money and North Carolina received $545 million to increase the speed of an existing train between Charlotte and Washington, D.C.

Gov. Charlie Crist unveiled a proposed budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year Friday that included $410 million for existing rail projects, but the governor’s spending plan did not address the high speed shortfall. Crist and other rail supporters pushed lawmakers to approve a commuter rail bill in a special session last month, saying federal officials had tied it to approval of the request for high-speed rail money that did not require matching state funds.

Lisa Saliba, coordinator of Gov. Crist’s budget office’s Transportation and Economic Development Policy Unit, agreed with Thibault that more rail money could be down the line.

“The vice-president made comments about there being future investments,” she said Friday after a briefing with reporters about Gov. Crist’s $69.2 billion budget proposal. “Typically we don’t initiate a project unless we have the money to complete it, so we’re going to see what they might contribute over the life of the project.”

Saliba said the bulk of the rail money in Crist’s budget would go to grants to local communities, but she added that the spending plan includes $79 million for the newly created Florida Rail Enterprise, which would oversee any high-speed rail lines built in Florida.

Saliba said that state transportation officials were not expecting to receive any money for their plan to expand Amtrak service between Jacksonville and south Florida down the Atlantic Coast instead of through central Florida or purchase right-of-ways for SunRail in Orlando.

“They spent the $8 billion, so we presume there won’t be any award,” she said.

However, Saliba said that because some money for SunRail had been included in the Department of Transportation’s five-year work plan, the rejection of that stimulus application would not necessarily derail the project.

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