Florida will receive federal money for a high-speed train between Orlando and Tampa, U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and George LeMieux said Wednesday.
The formal announcement happened yesterday during President Barack Obama’s post-State of the Union visit to Tampa, comes weeks after state lawmakers approved a sweeping rail package to allow for the development of the SunRail commuter train in Orlando and provide about $15 million to the cash-strapped Tri-Rail train in South Florida. Lawmakers hoped that legislation would help as they tried to secure $2.5 billion in federal stimulus money for a Tampa to Orlando high-speed corridor, the first leg of a long-proposed Tampa-Orlando-Miami bullet train route.
Affordable transportation makes Florida smaller and opens up the possibility that Tampa residents could work full-time at Walt Disney World or Orlando residents could have an office with a view of the Gulf of Mexico. Historically, homebuyers who commute prefer houses located close to rail stations, which boosts demand, and selling prices, for those neighborhoods.
Neither Nelson nor LeMieux said Wednesday how much of Florida’s $2.5 billion request would be granted. They also said they were unsure about the fate of two other requests: $70 million for Atlantic Coast Amtrak passenger service between Jacksonville and Miami and $432 million for buying existing freight tracks for SunRail from CSX Corp.
State transportation officials also remained mum, saying that they were awaiting the big announcement like everyone. But Nelson, a Democrat, and LeMieux, a Republican, did not wait to hail the decision to award Florida the rail money.
“This will be one of the largest boosts to the state’s economy since Disney, since the interstate highway system,” Nelson said in a statement.
“This will be a transformative project for Florida,” LeMieux followed in a statement of his own. “It will connect Tampa and Orlando making it a mega region, making travel between the two cities much easier. I’ve got my fingers crossed that the President’s going to award Florida the full $2.5 billion.”
The Florida high speed rail corridor was one of 10 identified by the White House last spring for the beginning of a national network. Competing links include California between Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego; the Pacific Northwest; the Gulf Coast between Houston and Atlanta; Chicago; the southeastern U.S. between Washington, D.C. and Georgia; the south Central U.S. between Tulsa and Texas; Pennsylvania between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia; New York between New York City and upstate New York; and New England.
Even before Florida lawmakers approved the state rail bill, the Tampa-Orlando-Miami route was thought to be a prohibitive favorite because much of the preliminary surveying had been done when voters approved the plan in 2000 and the Florida High Speed Rail Authority was created in 2002. Federal transportation officials, however, hinted that a commuter rail deal was necessary before the state would be given any of the stimulus rail money.
One of Florida largest labor unions joined LeMieux and Nelson in lauding Obama’s expected announcement.
“We completely support high speed rail for Florida,” Florida AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin said Wednesday. “The state could use the high-skill, high-wage jobs it would bring, and Floridians would have a reliable system of public transportation.” The union initially opposed the SunRail bill, but turned around after receiving commitments that it would protect union jobs.
The leading Senate Sunrail critic said the expected windfall for Florida had not changed her position on SunRail.
“The (Sunrail) bill that was passed in special session had absolutely nothing to do with high speed rail,” state Senate and Republican gubernatorial candidate Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said after addressing newspaper editors and reporters in Tallahassee Wednesday. “The bill that passed this last session was a very brilliant attempt by the proponents of SunRail to get SunRail, which was unpopular, passed by tying it to … high-speed rail funding.”
Dockery said she expects Florida to get about $1.6 billion of the requested $2.5 billion. If the high-speed rail application is approved, construction on the Tampa-Orlando segment is scheduled to begin in late 2014 and the second segment by late 2017.