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High-speed rail project is still on track, despite disappointing transit votes

TAMPA — Planning remains in motion for a high-speed train to Orlando, despite uncertainty the election brings about funding for transportation projects.

Two mayors urged the state's fledgling rail commission Monday to hang in there. And railway companies are raring to go on the project, said a staff member fresh from an industry forum.

But at times during the meeting of the Florida Statewide Passenger Rail Commission, there were reminders recession-weary taxpayers are not on board.

"The voters want it, but they don't want to pay for it," said state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, one of nine members of the commission that the Legislature formed in 2009.

The idea for a 160-mph train ride from Tampa to Orlando took center stage in January during a visit to Tampa from President Barack Obama.

In announcing the state was getting $1.25 billion as part of nationwide spending on infrastructure, Obama was lauded by transit enthusiasts.

Since then, U.S. Rep. John Mica, the Winter Park Republican in line to head the House Transportation Committee, said he may revisit the nation's high-speed rail projects, including the Tampa-Orlando line. He suggested possibly scaling it back to the Orlando airport, theme parks and tourist destinations there.

And Republican Gov.-elect Rick Scott has expressed his own doubts about the project.

The federal government has committed more than $2 billion toward the project, which could cost as much as $2.7 billion. Officials eventually want to extend it to Miami for another $8 billion.

Project officials met recently with railway groups from around the globe who are eager to compete for the project, said chief operating officer Nazih Haddad. Some have suggested they can help Florida raise an estimated $340 million shortfall that exists after state and federal funding are considered.

Ring thinks they can do better — perhaps even investing.

"The taxpayer can't be on the hook for the initial risk," Ring said. "We're the first project of its kind in the country and this is going to be watched. Being the first out gives us a tremendous advantage."

Chairman Pat Christiansen of Orlando suggested inviting the companies to the board's December meeting and asking who will raise the $340 million. "The reality is they need to be innovative to deal with that gap," he said.

Officials said one selling point is the project's promise of creating more than 2,000 construction jobs. But Ring and other members pressed for evidence that the train will launch a super-regional transit system, along with details about the potential for business and job creation along the 80-mile corridor.

"Jobs is too simple," Ring said. "We aren't doing this project to create a couple thousand construction jobs. How will this make Tampa-Orlando more regional?"

Members affirmed the need for rail, even if it is not an easy sell.

"If we don't do this, we have to look at costs to build more lanes" on Interstate 4, said John Browning of East Palatka.

Tampa Mayo Pam Iorio, when welcoming the commission to Tampa, acknowledged the 59-41 percent defeat in Hillsborough County of a 1-cent sales tax hike for local rail, roads and buses.

In Polk County, a half-penny transit tax fared even worse, losing 62-38 percent, said Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields.

Iorio said she expects another campaign for local transit, perhaps in 2012 or 2014.

"Please don't think for a moment that we have given up," she said. "We truly think this is something that is critical to our region's future and Florida's future."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 624-2739 or sokol@sptimes.com.

High-speed rail project is still on track, despite disappointing transit votes 11/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 15, 2010 8:00pm]
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