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Florida's rail hopes end as Amtrak drops out of potential bid

WASHINGTON — After spending weeks on life support, Florida's high-speed rail project came to a definitive halt Friday when Amtrak officials told Sen. Bill Nelson they will not pursue a bullet train in the state.

The reason: There's not enough time.

The company said it could not meet the April 4 deadline set by the federal government for applications for $2.4 billion in federal money it had planned to award Florida before Gov. Rick Scott turned it away last month. Scott said he believed the project would be a burden on Florida taxpayers.

Rail advocates had hoped Amtrak and 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.

Now even Nelson, who called the plan a "Hail Mary" pass, says rail is dead.

"Sadly, Florida's $2.4 billion is going to go to some other state," Nelson said. "That was 90 percent of the cost of the construction of the first leg of high-speed rail in Florida."

It was Nelson who pressed the U.S. Department of Transportation to keep the door open for Florida even after the governor rejected the money on Feb. 16. And even after state Sens. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, lost a Florida Supreme Court lawsuit arguing Scott overstepped his executive authority with the decision.

Other factors also made the desperate attempt to save the project impossible.

Tampa voters will elect a new mayor Tuesday, and Mayor Pam Iorio leaves office April 1. She said it wouldn't be fair to try to slap something together when the city is in transition.

"The new mayor has to be very much invested in this and play the part in forming the entity," she said. "There's just not enough time for something this complex."

Plus, Iorio said, the entity still would need cooperation from Scott.

"There's still the overarching issue, that even if the entity was formed and Amtrak did want to get involved, would the Florida Department of Transportation be given the green light to work with us? Probably not," Iorio said. "That remained a very large stumbling block."

Nelson said he hopes the state Legislature, where support for rail exists among Democrats and some Republicans, will pass granting authority over the right-of-way for the proposed Orlando-Tampa route to the coalition, taking control away from the state and Scott.

"There is continuing money for high-speed rail that will be available over the next several years," Nelson said, adding Amtrak president Joseph H. Boardman told him he is still interested in pursuing a future project with the coalition of cities.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com or (202) 306-4807.

Florida's rail hopes end as Amtrak drops out of potential bid 03/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 11:02pm]
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