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Florida leaders, community organizers to launch campaign to win federal funding for high-speed rail

TAMPA — With the deadline looming to apply for federal stimulus money to build a high-speed rail line, lawmakers, business leaders and community organizers will launch a campaign today to win funding for the project.

The group ConnectUs, a nonprofit founded by longtime rail supporter and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, is spearheading the effort.

"This is a grass roots campaign that's going to be working on this and elevating this in the public eye," said Robert Armstead, a spokesman for ConnectUs.

Florida is seeking $2.53 billion in federal stimulus money to start building a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando. Plans call for the tracks to eventually extend to Miami.

Three events in support of the effort are scheduled for today.

At 9:30 a.m., the Central Florida Partnership will host a rally at Orlando International Airport, with U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson-D, Orlando, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer as the featured speakers.

At 11:45 a.m., Republican state Sen. Paula Dockery will host an event at the Lakeland City Hall.

And at 2 p.m., Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and the Tampa Bay Partnership will host a rally at Stetson University College of Law.

The line is considered a top contender in the competition for $8 billion in stimulus money attached to President Barack Obama's vision for "world-class passenger rail" in 10 major corridors, including Florida. Obama has pledged another $1 billion for high-speed rail for each of the next five years.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has singled out Florida and California — where the line would connect San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento — as being "way ahead of the curve" with their high-speed rail plans, meaning they could quickly meet Obama's goal of creating jobs.

In Florida, environmental and ridership studies have been completed. The right of way for the tracks is largely in place, with plans to run trains in the median of Interstate 4.

Land for bullet train stations has been committed in downtown Tampa on the site of the former Morgan Street jail and in Lakeland, Disney World and the Orlando International Airport.

"The only thing Florida has been lacking so far is a visible show of support from the citizens, the elected officials, communities, environmental groups and the business community," Dockery said. "That's really the purpose of ConnectUs, to gather all that support. Because it's there. We just need to showcase it. If we can do that, Florida's application is going to be heads above others."

On July 31, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson sent a letter to state Senate President Jeff Atwater, state House Speaker Larry Cretul and state Democratic leaders, saying they need to get behind the effort if Florida wants to win the stimulus money. He suggested they write a letter to LaHood expressing support.

Last week, Republican state Sen. Mike Fasano did just that, making more than a dozen points about why the state should get the award. Among the arguments Fasano made: Work on the Tampa-Orlando line could begin in less than two years; the train would provide a safe transportation alternative for seniors; and it would help with hurricane evacuation.

Ten members of Florida's federal legislative delegation also sent a letter in June to LaHood, showing support for the high-speed rail line project.

Signers included Democrats Castor, Grayson, and fellow U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, Kendrick Meek, Robert Wexler, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alcee Hastings, and Republicans Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Adam Putnam.

LaHood will be in Florida around the first of September to meet with state and local officials about the project, said Brown, who chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee's subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.

"He's very interested in Florida," said Brown, but noted that state lawmakers need to make financial commitments to the line. "I know the federal government wants to be partners. I know the locals want to be partners. But we've got to have the state at the table."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Florida leaders, community organizers to launch campaign to win federal funding for high-speed rail 08/17/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 17, 2009 9:43pm]
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