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Railroad official pushes transit to get on track

The nation's top railroad official swung through Tampa on Thursday, praising local mass transit plans but warning officials to move quickly on selecting a route for long-distance, high-speed trains.

Gilbert E. Carmichael, the federal railroad administrator, said any delay could endanger a chance to take advantage of a federal multimillion-dollar program to preserve and improve potential high-speed rail corridors in coming years.

The Tampa Bay to Orlando route is considered a prime corridor for high-speed trains, with 17-million annual vehicle trips between the cities. The trains would run at speeds of more than 125 mph, perhaps more than 200 mph.

But the state's effort stalled last year and officials still are studying proposals at a time when federal officials are ready to move with financial help for five corridors nationally, including one in the Southeast.

"Florida's a natural for one of these corridors," Carmichael said, urging the state to speed its studies in order to meet the federal deadline in October. The state wasn't planning to finish its studies until early next year.

Carmichael is touring Florida to answer questions about the federal government's new $150-billion transportation bill that emphasizes mass transit more than in past years. The bill includes flexibility to spend more federal money on buses and trains than on highways, as a way to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

Carmichael also praised a plan to link buses, commuter trains and long-distance trains at Union Station in Tampa. "You are so far ahead of others."

He said he was pleased with the area's planning for a commuter-rail system linking five bay area counties with Union Station, where Amtrak trains now operate. A lack of money has slowed development of that plan.