In Tampa, backers brainstorm how to make high-speed rail deal happen
Odd enough to see Democratic congresswoman Kathy Castor sitting next to business lobbyist icon Barney Bishop, chief of Associated Industries of Florida. Stranger still to see them in complete agreement on such a key topic: We need the high-speed rail (HSR) link between Tampa and Orlando to happen. "We're at a crossroads now," Castor said in her opening remarks.
A roundtable of high-speed rail supporters gathered Wednesday at the office of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce to ponder strategies on how to bring the high-speed rail deal to completion. The federal government's committed billions for the project. The state, under new Florida Gov. Rick Scott, is still pondering whether to bless the deal at the risk of the state budget having to cover future shortfalls. High-speed rail backers say that concern is probably moot since private bullet train companies wanting to break into the emerging high-speed rail market in America appear willing to pick up those costs themselves.
Here are some of the ideas raised at the Chamber roundtable:
* Gov. Scott's campaign promise of creating 700,000 Florida jobs in seven years will be hard to achieve, Castor said, if the high-speed rail project gets a thumbs down in Tallahassee.
* Bishop called high-speed rail projects (there are several under consideration across the country) "America's infrastructure bonanza." His lobbying group recently started its HSR Coalition. Bishop says for every 100 calls he's getting about it, "it's 99 for and one against." Bishop says he believes Gov. Scott will eventually approve the HSR project.
* Andy Kunz, CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association in Washington (though he grew up in Clearwater), asked why we're not hearing more support from big, powerful companies like Walt Disney or Universal or Publix Super Markets. All of them would benefit from high speed rail, he argued and their voices are needed to make the project happen.
* This is an "opportunity to reinvent ourselves," remarked Michael Bedke, who heads the transportation practice in Florida at the DLA Piper law firm in Tampa.
* Ronnie Duncan, chair of TBARTA (Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority), urged the roundtable to broaden its base when lobbying for the HSR line. Don't make this look like it's coming only from the business community, he said, Include environmental groups. And be consistent with the message.
Much of the discussion revolved around the need to expedite the RFQ ("request for qualification" to determine which companies and business teams are deemed capable to build and run the HSR link) from the state Department of Transportation. Once that's out of the way, a more familiar RFP (request for proposal) from the qualified teams would take place. The timing of such events is still unclear.
Eight teams, mainly experienced bullet train operators from Europe and Asia, are vying for a shot at building and running the Tampa-Orlando link.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist