Friday, May 14, 2010

Amtrak promoting passenger rail down Florida's east coast

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A $250-million Amtrak project to revive passenger service on Florida's historic east coast rail line is building steam, along with hopes it can revitalize station destinations such as Daytona Beach, the Orlando Sentinel reports. The project could re-establish passenger trains on the 350-mile route between Jacksonville and Miami, originally forged by Henry Flagler in the 1890s but discontinued in 1968 as the interstate highway system became the prominent transportation mode.

Proponents say the project is much easier and cheaper by the mile than other projects vying for federal railroad dollars because the historic route is still used by freight trains.

At a Daytona Beach workshop, there was a strong show of support for the railway by several blind and disabled residents dependent on public transportation. At least a few supporters also liked the allure of traveling by train, as opposed to dealing with highway traffic or security challenges of air travel.

On May 1, about 150 people, including Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and dozens of local officials and train fans, rode an Amtrak train for a special tour from Miami to Jacksonville. Festive crowds greeted the train at stops, including Daytona Beach, Cocoa, Titusville and Melbourne, with many seeing the train service as a great boost for local tourism and the economy.

"What makes this project stand out is that there is such a groundswell of support for it," said Kim DeLaney, growth management coordinator with the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. At a public workshop May 13 in Daytona Beach, she said at least 139 groups, from city councils to tourism boards, neighborhood and environmental groups, back the project.

Reviving the passenger service isn't a new idea. Amtrak first recommended it 10 years ago but couldn't pull it off because of the company's debt. With greater federal support for rail service these days, the east coast project was among those vying for key federal dollars ultimately won by SunRail.

If completed, the route would offer two southbound and two northbound trains a day, taking six hours to travel from Jacksonville to Miami. Eight new stations would need to be built.

From Jacksonville, passengers could connect to existing Amtrak service to New York City and Washington. Many also see huge potential in connecting the route to other rail lines in Florida, including SunRail and a few local light-rail projects.

To make the route viable, construction costs include upgrading tracks to enable trains to travel the targeted 90 mph. The project could create 2,100 jobs and is projected to carry 176,000 passengers a year, DeLaney said. She said they hope to have a proposal ready this summer to compete for federal dollars.

Daytona Beach officials have already backed the project but have one key concern about the potential costs to maintain the stations, which would eventually be locally owned.

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