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Stimulus money may resurrect state's high-speed rail line

TAMPA — Florida high-speed rail supporters are dusting off plans for trains connecting Tampa to Orlando and Miami with hopes that federal stimulus money will resurrect the project.

The corridor is one of 10 nationwide eligible to tap into $8 billion earmarked for high-speed rail through President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package. Obama's 2010 budget also commits $1 billion annually for the next five years to high-speed rail.

"This is an exciting thing," Gov. Charlie Crist said Friday after meeting with Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos. "We're obviously going to apply for the money."

Crist said he won't know until mid June, when federal officials release funding details, what type of financial commitment will be required from the state to get the federal money.

But the cash could go a long way toward relieving highway congestion in the state, he said.

"We're a state of almost 20 million people and an awful lot of vehicles," he said.

The first round of federal stimulus funding will be for projects that already have preliminary engineering and environmental work completed.

"Florida is closer to being shovel ready than any other corridor in the nation," said C.C. "Doc" Dockery, a Lakeland businessman and former member of the Florida High Speed Rail Authority.

The first phase would be a $2.5 billion connection between Tampa and Orlando in the Interstate 4 median. The second phase would reach Miami parallel to Interstate 95.

The authority was created after Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2000 mandating high-speed rail lines to link the state's major metropolitan areas.

But foes of rail, with then-Gov. Jeb Bush's support, got a repeal measure on the 2004 ballot and voters passed it.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said one of Bush's complaints about high-speed rail — that passengers would have no way to get around once they got off the train — has less weight now that plans for commuter rail are being developed in both areas.

"What we're doing now would certainly facilitate the success of a high-speed rail corridor from Tampa to Orlando and Orlando to Miami," Dyer said.

Crist said he has no qualms about supporting high speed rail even after voters nixed the constitutional amendment in 2004.

"The rationale there was that it was going to put a hole in the state budget. That's not an illegitimate concern," he said. "Thank goodness for the stimulus money."

Staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Stimulus money may resurrect state's high-speed rail line 04/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 12:04am]
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