Brightline says it is “making tremendous strides” toward Orlando-to-Tampa passenger rail service

railroad tracks train
Rail tracks by Sergei Ramiltsev via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Passenger rail service in Florida wasn’t included Friday as the White House announced awarding $8.2 billion for a series of major rail projects.

But Christine Kefauver, senior vice president of corporate development for the Brightline rail service, told a state House panel last week that the company is “making tremendous strides” toward an Orlando-to-Tampa route after completing a project connecting Miami and Orlando.

“It is complex to get to Tampa, but we’re up to the challenge,” Kefauver told members of the House Transportation and Modals Subcommittee.

What is known as the Sunshine Corridor Partnership seeks to connect the SunRail commuter-rail service in Central Florida to Brightline at Orlando International Airport, while linking the Orange County Convention Center, south International Drive and the Disney Springs areas.

“We’ve been in the Sunshine Corridor conversation for about two years, and we really do see us making tremendous strides on that coming up soon,” Kefauver said.

Brightline, which launched in 2018 in South Florida, completed a 170-mile, $6 billion project in September to connect Orlando to the system.

While questions have been raised over Brightline’s financing, ticket prices and when the company can operate solely on fares, Kefauver said the company is planning to grow, with 30 passenger cars ordered from Siemens Mobility to “accommodate that growth.”

Meanwhile, with the 2024 legislative session ready to start Jan. 9, Rep. Karen Gonzalez Pittman, R-Tampa, has submitted a $50 million proposal (House Form 1989) for rail improvements in the Interstate 4 corridor, where Brightline plans to roll in the median at speeds up to 150 mph.

“These funds and improvements will be used to attract federal and private funds to accelerate a passenger rail connection from Tampa to Orlando,” the proposal said.

While Florida in 2011 turned down $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue said Thursday that right-of-way along the I-4 corridor is reserved for passenger rail.

“We saw a need many years ago that there will be a need for intercity passenger rail, regardless of how that is provided or who’s providing that service,” Perdue told the House panel.

In her proposal, Gonzalez Pittman pointed to an anticipated $50 million in federal funding for the I-4 link. She also tied the state money to the Moving Forward Florida program, a wide-ranging transportation initiative that includes three I-4 projects.

“Incorporating a modest scope of additional structure work into the Moving Florida Forward program enables the future implementation of an intercity passenger rail within the corridor and will minimize future disruption to traffic while optimizing the cost of infrastructure within this critical transportation corridor,” Gonzalez Pittman’s proposal said.

Backers say rail service can help reduce vehicles on Central Florida’s congested roads.

But Rep. David Smith, R-Winter Springs, cautioned that commuter rail loses “significant amounts” of money every year, pointing to SunRail.

“It costs more to operate than it takes in. That cost is going to be shifted either to an additional penny sales tax, maybe locally, or property tax. Somebody’s going to pay that bill,” Smith said. “As you expand a rail network that loses money every time it runs, I hope we find that collaboration and partnership between local, state, federal, private … I think we need much greater thought before people continue to use the term success.”

Amtrak already runs passenger rail between Orlando and Tampa.

The Biden administration Friday announced $8.2 billion for 10 passenger-rail projects across the country, with one of the projects tied to Brightline. Under the plan, Brightline West will get $3 billion for its planned $12 billion high-speed rail system between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area.

The service is expected to open before the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Other projects included in the White House announcement involved states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maine, Illinois and Alaska.

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