Train supporters say they are now working on a link, which potentially would increase ridership for both systems. But it appears little thought initially was given to bringing the trains together because few ever thought the projects would happen, much less at about the same time. SunRail, after all, was defeated twice in the state Legislature, and high-speed-rail proposals had failed repeatedly during several decades.
As longtime transportation planner Dave Grovdahl of MetroPlan in downtown Orlando said, "How many people were expecting high-speed rail to be a funded project?"
But the election of President Barack Obama -- a high-speed-rail fan -- coupled with the $787-billion stimulus package passed by Congress last year resulted in money to create the fast train planned to run from OIA to Tampa. The promise of high-speed dollars also helped prompt Florida lawmakers to approve SunRail on the third try in December. The Obama administration awarded $1.25 billion to Florida's high-speed bid little more than a month later.
Construction could begin late this year on SunRail, expected to link DeLand in Volusia County with downtown Orlando and Poinciana in Osceola County by 2015. The high-speed train could be running by 2015, too. That has led area officials to push the state Department of Transportation, overseeing both ventures, to link the two. That will take a change of attitude, said Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner and director of ConnectUs, a pro-high-speed lobbying group.
"Florida has never had a serious rail plan," Turanchik said. "It's always been a cobbling of projects."
There are two major
roadblocks to bringing the two trains together: money and logistics. SunRail
will be paid for with federal, state and local money. The state and local
governments stretched to cover their portion of the bill and are looking at
budget cuts and layoffs. So city and county leaders say they have no more to
High speed is $1.4 billion short of paying for the 84-mile system. The $1.25 billion, experts say, is enough to pay for the foundation of the line, which should take about two to three years to complete.
Federal Railroad Administration Director Joe Szabo said during a news conference last week that his agency intends to send more money -- though he did not specify how much -- to Florida for high speed. He called the first grant a "down payment."
"The $1.25 billion doesn't mean much," he said, "if we don't get trains operating between Tampa and the airport."
The most logical source to pay for a connection would be the federal government, which, Szabo said, wants to create jobs building a high-speed-rail network nationwide. Ultimately, Szabo said, the Obama administration wants to reduce oil consumption while offering travelers an option other than cars or planes.
But before asking for money, state and local officials must figure out where and how to connect the trains -- and how much that might cost.
Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty said a working link has to be established because the trains will be Central Florida's introduction to rail transit. "We only get one bite of the apple, and we need to do it right," said Crotty, who wrote a letter to the state DOT encouraging them to bring the systems together. Botch the connection, he added, and "all credibility is lost forever."
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said there are a handful of options for FDOT to consider, including using tracks owned by the Orlando Utilities Commission that ferry coal trains to the Curtis Stanton power plant east of OIA. Those tracks, Dyer said, run close to the high-speed-rail station that would be built at OIA, providing a possible corridor for a link. Another idea would be building a stop near where the two lines cross each other.
A third choice would be running a bus from the SunRail stop at Sand Lake Road to OIA, about a six-mile journey. Few like that idea because it would cause travelers, many presumably with baggage, to go from train to bus to train -- a scenario that would discourage transfers, experts say.
"I think people will
use trains, but you have to make it dependable and convenient," said James
McCommons, a journalism professor at the University of Northern Michigan who
rode Amtrak for 26,000 miles and wrote a book about the experience.
SunRail and high-speed rail have to connect, McCommons said, because "if people are going to use them, they have to be able to use them conveniently."