TAMPA — This week marks a major milestone in Florida's quest for high-speed rail.
State transportation officials will submit their first application for billions in federal stimulus money to help pay for a rail line connecting Tampa and Orlando.
The line is considered a top contender in the competition for $8 billion 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.
Lee Chira, chairman of the Florida High Speed Rail Authority, sees this as a "one-time opportunity."
"If we don't get on this system now we'll never have it in Florida in our lifetime," he said.
If the state is successful in its bid, money could start flowing as early as September for the $2.5 billion Tampa connection, which could be completed in four years, creating 15,000 jobs, Chira said. The line would eventually connect Tampa to Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville.
Chira said the first leg could be completed with $1.5 billion from the federal government and $1 billion from private investors who have previously expressed interest in the project.
In a news conference last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood singled out Florida and California — where the line would connect San Diego to Sacramento and San Francisco — as being "way ahead of the curve" with their plans, which means 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 stations already 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.
Much of the project's development began years ago, when voters in 2000 approved a bullet train for the state and four years later squashed it with backing from then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
Federal railroad authorities, at the request of state officials, recently released $4 million remaining in the defunct bullet train budget to update the plans.
But is Florida ready for high-speed rail?
With no regional rail systems in place to connect with the new line, U.S. Rep. John Mica of Winter Park, the ranking Republican member of the House Transportation Committee, says no.
"Unfortunately, Florida has had so many unsuccessful fits and starts that their reputation for falling down on major infrastructure projects is probably going to be a detriment," he said.
He points to the bullet train reversal and the Central Florida light rail project sidetracked by Tallahassee lawmakers who bickered over liability issues in the past two legislative sessions.
Mica also questions the financial viability of the proposed high-speed rail corridor. He says only the link from the Orlando airport to Disney World would have enough riders to support it.
"The rest of the leg to Tampa is a dog," he said.
Ultimately, though, it's a matter of timing, he said. High-speed rail needs local rail as support so passengers can get around when they reach their destination.
His focus is on getting federal money for regional systems, including $10 million that U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor requested for rail in Tampa Bay.
"Then we connect together with high speed," he said. "Doesn't anybody get that? How dumb can you be?"
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat from Jacksonville who chairs the Transportation Committee's subcommittee on railroads, said Florida's chances suffer from a lack of leadership at the state level.
"The people in charge tell me Florida talks a good game, but every time they have to put money on the table they come up short," she said, saying there's no funding available for high-speed rail in the state budget and light rail in South Florida is struggling financially.
Both Mica and Brown note that California voters recently voted to spend $9.8 billion on high-speed rail in that state.
"They're ready," Brown said.
Castor, a Democrat from Tampa, sees it differently, pointing out that Florida has dedicated right-of-way along the interstate for the line.
"That's a significant investment," she said.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a champion for rail in Tampa, sees no reason to wait for local systems to get going before moving forward with high-speed rail.
"They can work together simultaneously," he said.
Orlando's rail proposal is still in play, and Hillsborough and Tampa lawmakers hope to get a referendum on the 2010 ballot for a sales tax to pay for rail.
A federal infusion of money for high-speed rail might bolster those efforts, Sharpe said.
"Everybody is well aware that we are very competitive," he said. "We just have to kind of keep our eye on the ball and not get frustrated about past issues."
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.