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Amtrak woes loom over rail plan

The future of high-speed rail in Florida depends largely on recent developments in Washington, the Florida High Speed Rail Authority was told Tuesday.

Congress is still considering Amtrak's ability to issue bonds financing fast trains, said the authority's lobbyist, Peter A. Peyser Jr. Funding for a study of a high-speed rail line in Central Florida is also in Congress' hands.

However, the long-term future for Amtrak looks bleak as Congress is growing tired of the passenger rail carrier's 30-year inability to turn a profit.

The authority is keeping a close watch on Capitol Hill as it prepares a report for the Florida Legislature on how to build _ and pay for _ a network of bullet trains connecting the state's five major urban areas. The network's price could top $20-billion.

"We should be very cautious about entering into any agreement with that entity called Amtrak," said state Sen. Jim Sebesta, a Republican from St. Petersburg, who attended Tuesday's meeting. "The railroad business of Amtrak is not going to go away, but the entity Amtrak could disappear."

Last November, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring the state to begin construction on high-speed train lines by 2003.

The first link of the network would connect Orlando International Airport and Tampa Union Station, with trains probably running down the Interstate 4 median, costing an estimated $1.2-billion.

According to one of the authority's consultants, the rail line would cover the more than 80 miles in little more than an hour. Potential stops include Lakeland, Disney World and another tourist destination in Orlando.

The U.S. Senate is expected to soon vote on a $66.4-billion economic stimulus package, part of which gives Amtrak the authority to issue $7-billion in bonds for high-speed rail and other projects across the nation.

Among other bills in the works, one, the High Speed Rail Investment Act of 2001, would authorize Amtrak to sell $12-billion in bonds over the next 10 years. Another would provide $71-billion in bonds and loan guarantees directly to state rail projects, bypassing Amtrak.

Also, federal lawmakers are working out legislation that would approve $4.5-million to study the feasibility of a bullet train connecting Orlando and Tampa.

Peyser, the authority's lobbyist, said that Amtrak may be forced out of business after a federal panel's order that it come up with a liquidation plan for itself.

The Amtrak Reform Council declared Friday that Amtrak will not meet a congressional deadline of Dec. 2, 2002, for covering its operating costs without government help.

Congress and the White House will make a final decision about the future of Amtrak and rail service.

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