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Florida high-speed rail not dead yet: $2.4 billion open for bids, LaHood says

TALLAHASSEE — High-speed rail in Florida may not be dead yet.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Friday announced he will make the $2.4 billion originally earmarked for the state available through a competitive process.

That means a coalition of local governments, including Tampa, Orlando, Lakeland and Miami, could attempt to win the funds to build an 84-mile line between Tampa and Orlando. They would have to compete with other states for the money.

Gov. Rick Scott on Feb. 16 rejected the federal money that would nearly cover the bullet train's construction costs, saying he believed the project would be a burden on Florida taxpayers.

He's still against it, he said Friday.

"We're past high-speed rail," he said, reiterating his position that the focus should be on ports.

The news from LaHood, who in the past has diverted money rejected by states directly to other projects, threw a lifeline to longtime backers of the bullet train.

"If there's any opportunity for us to revive high-speed rail and bring it to Florida, we should explore it," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "I need more facts. But in talking to our attorneys about it we have felt all along that we could create an entity between the cities that could receive the funds."

The coalition, though, will still need cooperation from Scott.

The right of way for the tracks, largely along Interstate 4, belongs to the state. And technical assistance will need to come from the Florida Department of Transportation, which is under Scott's control.

"It's an arm of the government that would have to be helpful," Iorio said. "Just as they are helpful if we do a road project. At some point it would get to the point of absurdity if they help with roads and bike paths and expressways but they won't be helpful with a multibillion-dollar project an entity wants to do in conjunction with the private sector."

President Barack Obama wants to connect 80 percent of Americans to high-speed rail within the next 25 years, and has committed $53 billion to make that happen.

"States across the country have been banging down our door for the opportunity to receive additional high-speed rail dollars and to deliver all of its economic benefits to their citizens," LaHood said in a statement.

In deciding where to send Florida's $2.4 billion, LaHood said he will consider which projects can deliver public and economic benefits quickly as well as reduce energy consumption, improve the efficiency of a region's overall transportation network, and generate sustained economic development along the corridor.

"Florida's chances are alive, thanks to Secretary LaHood," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said she appreciates the door is still open for Florida.

"There are too many jobs at stake to give up and we'll keep at it," she said.

Applications for the money are due on April 4.

"We will absolutely take a look at it," said Gow Fields, the mayor of Lakeland, where a high-speed rail stop is planned. "The four mayors and our team will have to huddle and decide if it will be a go or no-go."

A ridership study released this week by the Florida Department of Transportation concluded the line connecting Tampa to Orlando would have a $10.2 million operating surplus in 2015, its first year of operation. The study showed the line would have a $28.6 million surplus in its 10th year.

The $1.3 million study was conducted by the forecasting firms Wilbur Smith Associates and Steer Davies Gleave.

Meanwhile, Scott on Friday announced on his Facebook page he will extend for several months his delay of contracts for SunRail, a commuter line set to be built around Orlando.

"During the months ahead, I'll complete a review of the financial impact this project could have on Florida's taxpayers," reads his status update.

State taxpayers are obligated to pay at least $900 million over seven years for SunRail, and local taxpayers are obligated to pay $526 million. The rest of the money comes from the federal government and projected ridership revenue.

State taxpayers would have to pay any SunRail ridership losses for the first seven years of operation and pay for 50 percent of construction cost overruns. Private vendors would have to bear those costs for high-speed rail.

Scott froze $235 million worth of SunRail contracts in January as part of an executive order calling for a review of all contracts with more than $1 million by his newly created Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform.

The contracts include $168 million to design and build the first phase of the line and $39 million to buy cars.

Scott did, however, authorize the state Department of Transportation on Friday to sign the contracts to lock in prices.

That should allow a grant application for federal grant money to move forward this month.

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida high-speed rail not dead yet: $2.4 billion open for bids, LaHood says 03/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 11, 2011 11:38pm]
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