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Monday, September 14, 2009

Southwest Florida considers bringing back commuter trains

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If you're waiting on a train in Southwest Florida, you might have a long wait - and when it does arrive, it'll be murder, reports the Naples News. The most consistent rail service south of Arcadia is on the Seminole Gulf Railway Murder Mystery Dinner Train. Those trips run a loop north from a station near Colonial Boulevard and Metro Parkway to about the Charlotte County line five nights a week.

Seminole Gulf does run about one freight train a week as far south as Alico Road. The company runs freight trains into Fort Myers from the north two or three times a week. Service, when demanded, reaches as far south as Railhead Park near Wiggins Pass in North Naples.

At one time there were competing tracks, one running as far south as downtown Naples and another all the way to Marco Island. There's been no passenger rail in Southwest Florida since the old Seaboard Coast Line halted service in 1971.

Some say that's a shame, and with gas prices high and economic times tough, they could be right. Both Lee County and Charlotte County have asked for federal stimulus money for rail. When the Lee Metropolitan Planning Organization voted to apply for a $48-million stimulus grant, members talked glowingly about alternate forms of transportation and mass transit.

"We're talking about a paradigm shift," Fort Myers Councilman and MPO member Warren Wright said. "I feel like this is a special and unique opportunity."

Maybe. The grant would come through the so-called TIGER program, which stands for Transportation Improvements Generating Economic Recovery. Criteria call for outside-the-box projects and mass transit. Nevertheless, the MPO hedged its bets and asked for $20 million for Interstate 75, too.

And not everyone was behind the rail. Florida Department of Transportation District One Secretary Stan Cann said he hates encouraging rail projects because there's been no full-blown feasibility study in Southwest Florida and the federal government has been reluctant to give money without one.

"I know how the federal government works," he said. "There's a lot of planning that goes into deciding what corridor serves an area, and a lot of questions about what we're doing here. Is this the rail corridor? Is 75? 41? Something closer to the coast?"

MPO Director Don Scott said he's talked to federal railroad officials about a possible grant for the study, which he said might cost $200,000. The study isn't included in the current grant application.

The existing rails are owned by Seminole Gulf, but the land beneath is owned by CSX Transportation. The companies are in the middle of one 20-year lease, Seminole Gulf vice president Mike Curley told the MPO, and have already executed the option for another 20. That means the tracks are leased to the railroad for the next 48 years.

The lease covers 65 miles of track from Arcadia to close to Wiggins Pass. Along the way, it passes through downtown Fort Myers, hugs heavily commercial Metro Parkway and passes close to the Coconut Point mall.

Harry Neeves, vice president for real estate and public projects for Seminole Gulf, said even the limited service the company provides now keeps 50,000 trucks a year off I-75. Neeves said the railroad has nine locomotives working in Southwest Florida and over 100 boxcars on the rails around the country. He said the railroad would welcome a feasibility study.

The grant money would be divided between track improvements - $10.3 million to replace aging tracks between Colonial and Charlotte County and repair the bridge over the Caloosahatchee - and public purchase of rail right-of-way.

It may be moot, however. The TIGER program is funded to the tune of $1.5 billion nationally. The Florida share works out to about $30 million.

"This may not get us to where most of us feel we need to go," Bonita Councilman John Spear said. "But it's an unmistakable first step."

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