Officials get latest on high speed rail

07/19/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Last January President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden came to Tampa to announce 1.2 billion dollars in stimulus dollars offered to help fund construction of a high speed rail line in Florida. Local and national officials were in Downtown Tampa this morning to hear the latest on the project which would initially run between Tampa and Orlando.

The rail line's expected completion date is some time in 2015. That may seem a long way out but Nazih Haddad, Chief Operating Officer for Florida Rail Enterprise, said boots are already on the ground along the I-4 corridor.

"The first phase of development for this project, the Orlando-Tampa phase is very well developed. We have completed as I've said earlier the environmental impact statement on this, direct of decision. It is ready to go basically."

The high speed rail line would mostly run in the I-4 median and will likely start in Downtown Tampa and end at Orlando International Airport. Other proposed stops include the Orlando Convention Center, Walt Disney World and Lakeland.

Citing the potential for boosting tourism some have said that the terminal Tampa stop should be Tampa International Airport but Mayor Pam Iorio said an intermodal station downtown is the way to go. Iorio said she hopes such a station would become one of the city’s signature structures.

"Just north of here, Morgan street, old jail site, that is where the high-speed rail system comes into Tampa. We envision that it is something that will truly be a major feature of Tampa for the 21st century. This will be hopefully be something that is architecturally iconic; something that everyone will look to as this focus of West Central Florida for transportation. So you picture perhaps the third floor being high-speed rail. The second, light rail. The third, how people will get on street level buses."

Haddad said light rail, not high-speed rail, should extend to the airport because such a system would be more flexible.

"This type of light rail project is the true needed system. Not just to connect to the high-speed rail from one area to the other, but to connect high-speed rail to all of the regions as Mayor Iorio mentioned a little earlier today. This has the potential to connect it to North Tampa on the light rail system; to West shore; to the airport and other locations within the Tampa Bay region."

Mayor Iorio agrees.

"What a mistake it would be to take it to the Tampa International Airport. What you need at Tampa International Airport is the light rail system that will be funded by the penny sales tax in November. That offers the greatest flexibility."

Iorio and others are hoping that Hillsborough voters approve that referendum which would levy an additional penny-per-dollar on the sales tax in the county. That tax would fund a transit overhaul, including construction of a light rail system, which would likely extend to the airport. The mayor said that when you think about it, connecting one airport to another via high-speed rail doesn’t make sense.

"How many times have you gone into an airport, parked the car, payed the parking fee, walked into the terminal and said 'I'm here to go to another airport?'"

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said it’s also a matter of logistics.

"High-speed rail you want very few stops and very high speeds to cover a long distance. But once you get to your point, you want to then be able to get on a commuter rail to get to your destination. And for downtown Tampa, that's absolutely critical to have a commuter rail system that could get you around the Metropolitan area."

US Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat said there’s potential economic benefit in building an intermodal station Downtown.

"It should be a light rail connection, or auto, or bus because the redevelopment potential that a terminal will bring when you have an inter modal connection with buses, light rail and the high speed rail simply can not be underestimated. We have high room to grow there. We have high density development that will eventually go in there. This will lift property values throughout all of Tampa."

Castor said she also had concern about the project’s economic aspects in the short term given that this one is intended to create jobs.

"We have many small business owners, minority firms, and others that have got to be able to tap into the job possibilities and opportunities. I think that there are a lot of folks in this room that want to understand how they will get this work and bid for these jobs."

The proposed high-speed rail line would be the first of its kind in the US. Its trains would run at a top speed of 168 miles per hour, and would get travelers from Tampa to Orlando in under an hour. Senator Nelson said the project would help bring Florida into the 21st century but only if those involved in it know what they’re doing.

"If we don't watch our Ps and Qs, we'll be in this delayed situation in a construction schedule that we don't want extended way out over time, because remember the purpose of the stimulus bill was to stimulate jobs and to get that by digging dirt and pouring concrete."

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