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Brightening prospects for Florida's proposed high speed rail?

5:29 PM, Jan 11, 2011   |    comments
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Tallahassee, Fla. -- Florida's high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando may be built with no state tax dollars, according to new information on the proposal.

The federal government has already given Florida $2.4 billion for the project.  That's about 90 percent of the total cost.

Another $280 million is needed to complete the financing.  It has looked as though the state of Florida would have to pay that bill, but now that may not be the case after all.

On Tuesday, members of the Senate Transportation Committee learned the companies competing for the rail project say they're ready to use private industry cash to complete the deal without using any money from the state.

The company that wins the contract to build and operate the rail system will be responsible for all operating and maintenance costs for 30 years.

Sen. Paula Dockery, a self-described fiscal conservative, says taxpayers will not be on the hook if the project costs more than expected.

"The consortium that bids on this is going to be absorbing any losses if there are cost overruns on the building of the process.  So all the risk has been taken out."

Sen. Dockery says the consortiums vying for the project are willing to lose some money on the Tampa-Orlando leg because they really want control of the next project: Orlando to Miami.  She says that leg of the high-speed rail system is expected to be very profitable.

Current projections indicate the 84-mile Tampa-Orlando leg would have 2.4 million passengers in its first year.  That level of ridership would generate $53 million and the cost to operate the line would be $50 million.

Kevin Thibault of the Florida Department of Transportation says the operator could make some extra money through concessions at five stations along the route.

He says the rail line would offer nonstop service between Tampa and Orlando.

"The maximum speed on this segment is actually over 168 miles per hour. The nonstop time from downtown Tampa to Orlando International Airport is approximately 43 minutes."

The Florida Department of Transportation says it will be ready to take proposals for the project in March.  Rail consortiums will have six months to develop a detailed plan.  Then the state would pick a vendor by the end of 2011 and work would begin in 2012.

Of course, the fate of the project is still in the hands of Gov. Rick Scott, who could choose to turn away the federal cash.  Scott says he's waiting for a new report on projected ridership and expenses to the state before he makes up his mind.

Dave Heller

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