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Friday, April 09, 2010

Full-speed ahead for Florida bullet train bids

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In January, President Obama presented Florida with $1.25 billion in high-speed rail stimulus money for the Orlando to Tampa bullet train. It was about half of the $2.5 billion needed to get the project up and running, but that isn't slowing down the state Department of Transportation and its Florida Rail Enterprise, The Lakeland, Fla., Ledger reports.

Invitations to bid on preliminary construction along the Phase I high-speed rail corridor between Orlando and Tampa could be made by November, according to a Florida Department of Transportation official. Actual construction on the main project could begin as early as November 2012 with the "bullet train'' operational sometime in 2015, said Nazih Haddad, the DOT official who has spent years overseeing development of passenger train services in the state.

Only one other state, California, is recognized by the Federal Railway Administration as having near-ready plans for truly high-speed rail and that state probably won't have its system up and running until five years after the first fast train pulls out of the station in Florida, he said.

For almost three decades Florida officials have dreamed of and promoted high-speed rail with trains capable of more than 150 miles per hour. Haddad told Ledger editors on Wednesday that he is confident the remaining $1.25 billion of the money will come shortly.

Congress just approved another large budget for high-speed rail.

Florida will either apply for enough to complete the project or the Federal Railway Administration may have other plans for funding the rest of the project, he said.

"Ours is a start-from-scratch project. The FRA recognized that they would have to provide additional money," he said.

If the state applies for the remainder of the money it would have to pay 20 percent of the additional money, which amounts to $200 million, unlike the $1.25 billion in stimulus money that required no matching funds.

That also won't be a barrier to the project, Haddad said, because during a special session in December the Legislature created a program to put $60 million annually into rail transportation development.

The planned preliminary construction or "early work" program -- largely preparing the area for the major contractor by providing barriers along the intended path of the rail and other minor preparations -- will provide some jobs early.

"We do not need all the money in hand before we begin," Haddad said.

The early work would create an "envelope" for the project from which the major contractor/operator could begin, and it will provide some jobs within months, Haddad said.

In the meantime, the department is completing revised preliminary engineering plans and cost estimates for the FRA and would-be builder/operators for the Orlando to Tampa route. A builder operator for the turnkey operation could be chosen in a little more than a year.

According to state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, there are three suitors on the horizon already to build the rail beds, provide train sets and operate the rail system. Each is a consortium of various contractors and train operation firms from Korea, France and Japan, she said.

Both Korean and French consortiums propose a European-style bullet train with heavier equipment. The Japanese consortium, she said, would use the lighter and faster train system that was developed in that country.

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