Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Treasure Coast officials focusing on Amtrak, not high-speed rail

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When passenger rail service returns to the Treasure Coast, travelers still will be expected to rely upon their cars, the Indian River, Fla., Press Journal reports.

The state has received $1.25 billion to cover half the cost of a high-speed rail system that one day may run through the Treasure Coast. However, local transit officials prefer to focus on putting passengers on the rail system that has so far failed to garner stimulus support. They're focusing on an Amtrak train on the Florida East Coast Railway lines that could provide commuter service and benefit the more populated areas of the region.

Regardless of the system that brings the region its first passenger railroad station since the 1960s, transit planners expect those riding it will have to drive themselves, or be driven, to the stations.

Phil Matson, Indian River County Metropolitan Planning Organization's director of community development, said that among the Treasure Coast public transit systems, Indian River is probably in the best position if rail is to return to the FEC tracks for the first time since 1968. There are six transit buses running six days a week in the downtown that connect to eight others in the county, he said.

"The question is whether or not we'll reschedule them to meet the trains. I think we will," Matson said. "People don't want to wait 45 minutes for a connection."

Otherwise, regional transit planners are not expecting to ask taxpayers to make massive upgrades to their community bus systems that have been facing cutbacks amid criticism of low ridership.

Barbara Kauffman, president of the Council on Aging, which oversees Community Coach in Martin County, noted her agency supports rail efforts, but as far as extending public transit, "we have proposed two additional routes during the day that were not funded this year due to budget constraints."

The state Department of Transportation's $268 million estimate to get the Amtrak system operating does include plans for a train designed just for the local service, upgrades to the existing rails and eight stations, including stops in Vero Beach, Fort Pierce and Stuart.

The state Department of Transportation, which estimated the line could be up and running within three years, and directly and indirectly create 2,100 jobs, is expected to resubmit the application later this year.

Kim DeLaney, growth management coordinator for the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, said Martin County may be able to build a parking deck near a downtown Stuart station as they expect the majority of train riders to drive their own cars or be driven, with the passengers heading off for overnight visits.

As for the prospects of a Treasure Coast station with the high-speed system, the $1.25 billion announced by President Barack Obama last month would only pay for about half of the $2.5 billion estimated to build the 84-mile high-speed corridor between Tampa and Orlando. Giant question marks remain for the 225-mile, estimated $8 billion Orlando-to-Miami leg that may run parallel to Interstate 95 - the route favored when voters first approved and later removed it from the state constitution - or along state Road 710, Warfield Boulevard in Indiantown.

"We haven't had an opportunity yet to begin to really evaluate the corridor, identify where a stop may occur in the region," DeLaney said. "It's been envisioned as a fairly distant prospect."

Kevin Thibault, a senior Florida Department of Transportation official in charge of the high-speed rail program, said the federal money wouldn't be enough to complete the Tampa-Orlando phase - unless federal officials offer more funds in the future.

State transportation officials couldn't say how much of the 84-mile Tampa-Orlando stretch they can actually build with the money. And they don't know when - or if - they can begin work on the Miami leg.

Bob Poole, transportation policy director at the Libertarian Reason Foundation, wondered how Florida would get the additional money to complete the Tampa-Orlando segment.

"Somehow Florida would have to find the extra money," he said, "and the state budget has more than a $1 billion deficit next year."

According to documents FDOT submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration, if Florida had received all the funds, contracts could be signed within months. Construction jobs, however, would not start for at least another year because work would not begin until 2011.

Using state money to cover the shortfall in the federal grant is an unlikely prospect, skeptics said.

Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association, said he doesn't see much willingness from the Legislature to raise new revenue to build and maintain a rail system. State money for transportation projects was cut this budget year.

"It's not a zero-sum game. It's worse than that," Burleson said. "There is an ever-decreasing pool of money. And if they take money, it will be from a significant project and the people will scream."

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