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With money turned down by others, Florida high speed rail could get $342 million boost

TAMPA — Florida can get the rest of the money needed to build a Tampa-to-Orlando bullet train from federal stimulus funds turned down by other states.

The question is: Will Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott take it?

As a candidate, he was openly skeptical of the cost of high-speed rail. On Thursday, he said more study is needed.

"I look forward to reviewing the feasibility of this project in terms of return to Florida's taxpayers," he said in a statement.

Scott's remarks came after the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Thursday it would make another $342 million available for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando.

That's enough to cover the project's $2.65 billion cost, officials said. The federal government previously kicked in $2.05 billion, some of which came with a $280 million state match.

"The federal government has stepped up and done its part," Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said in a statement. "There should be no reason now why this can't get done."

Florida is getting the money because newly elected Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin turned down the stimulus funds for high-speed rail.

The return for Floridians would be significant, said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a rail supporter.

"This is an investment that we have to make," she said. "We're being given the money by the federal government. It's going to be the start of a new transportation system in our state. It will produce jobs. It will one day link to Miami. It would be so short-sighted not to build it."

But the return to taxpayers is not the only issue for Scott.

"I'm also interested in understanding the private sector's interest in funding this infrastructure project," he said.

That's a question recently raised by members of the Florida Statewide Passenger Rail Commission. And on Thursday, U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, the incoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, raised the same issue.

But something else Mica said troubled some Tampa Bay leaders more.

The new money is enough to build the line from Tampa to Orlando, but passenger service to Tampa "may need to be added incrementally" as the Tampa Bay area develops its own light rail system to connect to the bullet train, he said.

Reading Mica's statement, Iorio muttered under her breath. True, Hillsborough County voters last month rejected a proposed 1-cent sales tax increase to pay for light rail, roads and buses.

"But that doesn't mean that we can't have a robust, high-speed Tampa to Orlando," she said. "We're going to have a station downtown, and there are going to be buses that connect people in the interim until light rail is built."

Mica expects high-speed rail from the Orlando airport to the Disney World resort area to be profitable.

But if projected ridership from there west to Tampa isn't strong enough at first, Mica doesn't think it would make sense to run a lot of empty trains there and back, according to Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for Republicans on the House transportation committee.

"He thinks we may have to begin with less frequent service — whatever makes sense," Harclerode said in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "He believes bringing fixed transit to the Tampa Bay region, to connect into this project, would help improve ridership."

That's what the local community is still working on, albeit on a more limited scale and with existing tax revenues, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said.

"I'm committed to making this whole system work," said Sharpe, a leading supporter of the transit tax. "We're going to do it by the most cost-effective means for the taxpayer."

Former Tampa congressman Jim Davis, a leader of the light-rail initiative in Hillsborough, said Mica has strongly supported efforts to improve transit in Tampa and Orlando — and still does.

"I read this as encouragement to us to work harder on our end of the line," Davis said.

That means not only making the case for bringing high-speed rail to Tampa, but also making the case to connect regional transit systems to the bullet train.

"The key here is connection," Davis said. "What makes this work is not just connecting Tampa and Orlando, but it's connecting folks around Hillsborough County and around our region."

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

With money turned down by others, Florida high speed rail could get $342 million boost 12/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 9, 2010 11:00pm]
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