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Florida Perfect for High-Speed Rail: Editorial From the Tampa Tribune

02 Jun 2009 9:02 PM | Jackson McQuigg (Administrator)

http://www2.tbo.com/content/2009/jun/01/na-florida-perfect-for-high-speed-rail/

Florida perfect for high-speed rail
States are competing hard for a part of $8 billion in federal money to build high-speed rail lines, and if decisions are merit-based as promised, Florida is well positioned to win a big share.

It's important to be first because the new trains will bring an economic boost more lasting than a Super Bowl or Olympics. And Congress might not approve future rounds of stimulus spending on trains, so those left behind may never catch up.

"Send us the money and we'll start digging," Lee Chira, head of the Florida High Speed Rail Authority, told federal railroad officials at a recent meeting in Orlando.

He wasn't exaggerating. Florida has spent some $30 million to complete environmental studies on a high-speed rail route from the Tampa area to Orlando.

A state's contribution deserves considerable weight in the selection process. Florida also has reserved right of way on I-4 for a train. The head of the state Department of Transportation, Stephanie Kopelousos, says that contribution is worth $1.5 billion.

The distance between Tampa and Orlando is also perfect to compete with airlines, and many drivers on busy I-4 will be happy to switch to a relaxing train, especially one they can see passing them.

Central Florida also is a major tourist destination, perfect for showcasing the new technology.

Federal Railroad Deputy Administrator Karen Rae tells us she expects 30 states to apply. Officials will be tempted to spread the money thin to avoid disappointing anyone, but that would be a mistake. A few prime routes should be chosen and quickly completed.

They should be routes, like Florida's, where high ridership is guaranteed, terrain is flat and obstacles are few. Florida's train could easily be extended to Miami, then north to Jacksonville, and from there into Georgia to connect with an eventual Southeast regional network.

One factor working against Tampa and Orlando is the lack of a local rail system in either city. But federal officials should factor in the reality that Florida has long received less transit money than other states. It wouldn't be fair to penalize Florida again, especially now that transit enhancements are in the works in both areas.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio told Rae and other officials that a referendum on rail will be held in 2010 in Hillsborough that will lead to major transit improvements. As for high-speed rail, she said, "We are ready for it in Tampa." Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe and many others from Tampa also attended to lobby for a Florida line.

Such political endorsements might not be officially required, but they're essential to win.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who has angered some fellow Republicans by supporting President Obama's stimulus spending, should become a high-profile advocate for a Florida train. His leadership could help Orlando, Lakeland, Tampa, St. Petersburg and Miami pull in the same direction.

He needs to make it clear that Florida's support is solid. State voters had demanded that the state build a high-speed train, but a few years later they changed their minds.

That shouldn't count against Florida. States don't have the resources to build inter-city high-speed rail without shortchanging their own underfunded highway and local transit programs.

It can be argued that the federal government can't afford it either. But that decision has been made.

Crist can campaign with a clear conscience to convince railroad officials to invest where the money can bring high visibility and certain economic payback, right here in Florida.
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