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Despite Right's Objection, S. Florida, Jax Eye Rail, Too

November 19, 2010 - 6:00pm

With new spending on rail in question because of a rising anti-tax mood, supporters in South and Northeast Florida may look to duplicate successes in Orlando and Tampa in drawing down federal money so trains can roll, even if theres state government opposition.

A year after lawmakers agreed toprovide about $15 million annually to the cash-strapped Tri-Rail in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, transportation officials there are in the beginning stages of considering building another train to complement it. The new train, which would run east of Interstate 95 on the existing Florida East Coast Railway tracks, would cost $2.5 billion.

It is envisioned to connect to Tri-Rail. As it is currently constituted, Tri-Rail runs on the west side of I-95 from the Miami International Airport to just north of the West Palm Beach International Airport.

Supporters of the new train, which would run from Miami to Jupiter, have not figured out yet where they will look for the money to build it. But they know one place they are unlikely to find it: the more fiscally conservative state government that Gov.-elect Rick Scott has promised to usher in.

However, the Florida Department of Transportation project manager for the area, Scott Seeburger, told the News Service Friday that the plan has been approved by metropolitan planning organizations in Palm Beach and Broward, and is under consideration now by Miami-Dades MPO. Palm Beach in particular has been fairly positive about the proposal, he said, though he acknowledges it is very early in development.

So early, Seeburger said, that it could be seven to eight years before all the relevant municipal governments approve of the project and environmental studies can be conducted. Only then could construction begin, said Seeburger.

Were hoping to get a regional dialogue on transportation going, using the popularity of this project and launch into a bigger discussion, he said. Do we act like a regional, which is important to capturing federal money, or are we competing with each other?

Similar discussions are ongoing in Jacksonville, too. Separate from the talks in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority issued a study about bringing commuter rail to Northeast Florida that would be similar to the recently approved SunRail train in Orlando.

JTAs vision includes a strategy to incorporate commuter rail as part of its integrated transportation system that will provide alternate choices, the JTA said after releasing a study in 2009. Planned, designed and implemented, imagine expanding your transportation experience to a regional option that brings outlying areas such as St. Augustine, Yulee, Fernandina, Green Cove Springs, Flagler County, Palm Coast, Bunnell and other surrounding counties within reach of business opportunities in Jacksonville.

As JTA continues to study and pursue the commuter rail, our goal is to provide a unified and efficient multimodal transportation network, the statement concluded.

The Jacksonville train was projected to cost $622 million in 2008. Like South and Central Florida rail advocates, supporters talked of looking to the federal government for financing, which is likely to be even more necessary now under Scott and the more fiscally conservative Florida Legislature.

The primary source of federal funds for rail transit projects is the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) through grants for planning, vehicle purchases, facility construction, operations, and other public transportation purposes, the JTA study said.

Just as much as Florida rail backers are interested in attracting the attention of the friendly-to-rail federal government, though, President Barack Obamas administration has shown it is clearly interested in Florida playing a large role in his proposed national network of trains to rival the federal interstate system. Sunshine State rail supporters note with glee that the federal government has offered up $2 billion for the proposed bullet train connecting Tampa and Orlando, more than any state other than California has been given for rail.

But it took threats from federal transportation officials to choke off that funding to get the recalcitrant Legislature to pony up money for Tri-Rail, which considered using money reserved for capital projects for operations to avoid cutting the number of trains it ran in 2009.

Before Florida lawmakers offered up $15 million a year in dedicated funding for the train to show federal officials they were serious about rail, plans were in place to eliminate half of Tri-Rails 60 trains per day and cut weekend or holiday service altogether.

Bonnie Arnold, a spokeswoman for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees Tri-Rail, said the influx of cash from the state stabilized the situation for the system, but thats about it.

The dedicated funding that came through ensured that we can maintain our operations at the level they were, Arnold told the News Service.

Unfortunately, it doesnt provide for expansion. People are still crying for us to go up to Jupiter or run more trains on the weekend, but thats not going to happen with what weve got. Its the status quo for the time being," she said.

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