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With new focus on trimmer government, doubts surface on high-speed rail costs

Are the wheels getting wobbly and in danger of falling off the high-speed rail project planned and partially funded to connect downtown Tampa and Orlando?

At a gathering of high-speed rail advocates this week in Orlando, just a whiff of backpedaling could be smelled after the Nov. 2 election that not only killed Hillsborough County efforts to fund the start of a regional light rail and bus system, but also ushered in Republicans at the state and national level keen on shrinking government.

The first hint of vacillation arose Monday when Florida congressman John Mica suggested building the mostly federally funded Orlando-to-Tampa route in phases.

Mica is a Winter Park Republican who represents a chunk of Central Florida near Orlando. He will soon take charge of the key House Transportation Committee in Washington now that Republicans have retaken the majority in the House.

"We should take a strong look at the possibility of building the train in phases," Mica said, according to several media reports from Orlando. "The Tampa to Orlando route may not be a moneymaker, but the airport-to-attractions route looks like it would be."

Whoa. So a high-speed rail connecting Orlando International Airport to Disney's nearby theme parks makes sense, but extending the rail west to Lakeland and Tampa may need to come later?

Truth is, in the best of economies the Tampa-to-Orlando rail line barely justifies a high-speed train. The 84 miles separating the two cities' end points is just long enough to make the train ride shorter than the drive.

High-speed rail backers point out that this single link is just the first of a planned statewide high-speed rail system. The second leg, the 220-mile stretch linking Orlando and Miami, is an easier pitch for the benefits of high-speed trains. Of course, that means Tampa would be linked, via Orlando, to Miami and ultimately other Florida metro areas if and when a high-speed rail network develops.

At Orlando's high-speed fest this week, even Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio was reduced to promoting just the proposed endpoint terminal in Tampa as a development stimulus for a part of her city that does not get much economic attention.

Before last week's election killed the start of regional light rail and bus services here, Iorio crowed often about the economic development potential of a high-speed link tied to a Tampa Bay-wide regional transit system.

What's not yet clear is whether incoming Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott, who has doubts about high-speed rail's expense, will give a thumbs up or down on any federal project requiring additional state funding. One Scott adviser thinks he may support it.

Amid all this transportation turmoil, in South Florida, leaders this week gave their blessing to a proposed regional train system using existing rail lines with dozens of stops connecting Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties through new routes and bus connections.

"I just think people are enamored with rail," Florida Department of Transportation study project manager Scott Seeburger told the Palm Beach Post.

"Enamored" is one thing. But as we learned the hard way here last week, paying for it is another.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

With new focus on trimmer government, doubts surface on high-speed rail costs 11/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 11, 2010 7:22am]
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