Two independent studies of the financial viability of a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando conclude the fares paid by riders alone would cover the cost of operating and maintaining the system.
The results of the studies, released Wednesday by the Florida High Speed Rail Authority, gave supporters of the controversial transportation system a boost.
"The study shows we have a very, very viable project between Tampa and Orlando," said C.C. "Doc" Dockery, who put $2.7-million of his own money into a campaign to pass the high-speed rail amendment to the state Constitution in 2000.
"We've got to get funding, then we've got to get approval from the (Federal Railroad Administration), and then we've got to build it," Dockery said. "We'll get there. I'm going to try to stay healthy until I can take my first ride."
Even if the optimistic ridership figures are accurate, the project's biggest hurdle remains funding. Proponents hope for an amalgam of federal, state and private money that doesn't saddle Florida taxpayers with underwriting the rail system forever.
But the availability of state funds is uncertain, particularly in the aftermath of voter approval earlier this month for the expensive class size measure, another constitutional amendment.
The ridership report, put together as a guide for potential contractors, does not include the rail link between Tampa and St. Petersburg. That project is being treated separately because there are so many problems associated with getting the rail line from the east side of Tampa to the West Shore area and then across Tampa Bay to Pinellas County.
Excluding commuters, the ridership study calculated that travel between Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando in 2010 would be around 50-million trips a year, according to a summary of the study sent to High Speed Rail Authority members on Wednesday. Of those, somewhere between 15.6-million and 16.2-million trips potentially might be captured by a high-speed rail system.
This base ridership would generate between $26-million and $36-million a year, enough to cover operations and maintenance. It does not include such ancillary sources of income as concessions, parking, express parcel service, naming rights and advertising.
The authority could generate an additional 530,000 riders and $33-million in revenue a year if Disney and businesses along the International Drive corridor in Orlando agree to use the rail system to take their customers to and from the Orlando airport.
"I can't tell you that the results of these studies make it clear that high-speed rail is financially viable in Florida," said Nazih Haddad, staff director of the rail authority. "It only shows that ridership could cover operations and maintenance. Financing of construction and the purchase of (trains) are not included."
Dockery said that two consortiums of contractors have expressed an interest in the project. Asked if it wouldn't be better to have more, he said, "It costs about $2-million to put a bid together. That's a big chunk of change to put into a project that isn't even funded yet."
The ridership studies were done by AECom Technology Corp., and Wilbur Smith Associates, international consultants that specialize in engineering transportation systems.