Thursday, December 17, 2009

Florida governor approves millions for Tri-Rail

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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist signed a transportation bill that will provide new funding to Tri-Rail, South Florida's cash-trapped commuter train, and boost billion-dollar rail projects in the Central Florida region, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reports.

Approved by the legislature in special session, the bill (HB-1B) gives Tri-Rail an extra $13 million to $15 million in annual state funding, helping plug a budget gap for the commuter train that has 13,000 daily riders. Tri-Rail officials had been warning that without the cash, they would have been forced to cut back train service and risk defaulting on a federal loan.

The legislation also allows the $1.2-billion Orlando commuter rail project, SunRail, to go forward and strengthens the state's hand in competing for federal money for a bullet train that would zip from Tampa to Orlando to Miami at 120 mph. Florida already has applied for a $2.6-billion grant to build the first leg of the bullet train, from Tampa to Orlando.

At the bill signing, Crist said the bill means, "Florida's transportation future moves into the 21st Century."

New rail projects will create thousands of jobs, help the environment and get more people off clogged highways and onto commuter trains, the governor said.

"We are now one step closer to linking rail with roads, airports and seaports," Crist said. "SunRail, Tri-Rail, high-speed rail, will move the Sunshine State into a new era of collaboration and innovation."

Tri-Rail, which opened in 1989 and runs 72 trains from Palm Beach County to Miami International Airport, has struggled financially -- rider fares still only provide about 20 percent of overall operating costs. The new funding brings the annual subsidy from Tallahassee to around $30 million to $35 million.

After signing the bill in the Capitol, the governor left for a three-city tour with stops in Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale to tout the transportation projects.

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