Amtrak promoting passenger rail down Florida’s east coast

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A $250-million Amtrak project to revive passenger service on Florida's historic east coast rail line is building steam, along with hopes it can revitalize station destinations such as Daytona Beach, the Orlando Sentinel reports. The project could re-establish passenger trains on the 350-mile route between Jacksonville and Miami, originally forged by Henry Flagler in the 1890s but discontinued in 1968 as the interstate highway system became the prominent transportation mode.

Proponents say the
project is much easier and cheaper by the mile than other projects vying for
federal railroad dollars because the historic route is still used by freight
trains.

At a Daytona Beach
workshop, there was a strong show of support for the railway by several blind
and disabled residents dependent on public transportation. At least a few
supporters also liked the allure of traveling by train, as opposed to dealing
with highway traffic or security challenges of air travel.

On May 1, about 150
people, including Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and dozens of local officials and
train fans, rode an Amtrak train for a special tour from Miami to Jacksonville.
Festive crowds greeted the train at stops, including Daytona Beach, Cocoa,
Titusville and Melbourne, with many seeing the train service as a great boost
for local tourism and the economy.

"What makes this
project stand out is that there is such a groundswell of support for it,"
said Kim DeLaney, growth management coordinator with the Treasure Coast
Regional Planning Council. At a public workshop May 13 in Daytona Beach, she
said at least 139 groups, from city councils to tourism boards, neighborhood
and environmental groups, back the project.

Reviving the passenger
service isn’t a new idea. Amtrak first recommended it 10 years ago but couldn’t
pull it off because of the company’s debt. With greater federal support for
rail service these days, the east coast project was among those vying for key
federal dollars ultimately won by SunRail.

If completed, the route
would offer two southbound and two northbound trains a day, taking six hours to
travel from Jacksonville to Miami. Eight new stations would need to be built.

From Jacksonville,
passengers could connect to existing Amtrak service to New York City and
Washington. Many also see huge potential in connecting the route to other rail
lines in Florida, including SunRail and a few local light-rail projects.

To make the route viable,
construction costs include upgrading tracks to enable trains to travel the
targeted 90 mph. The project could create 2,100 jobs and is projected to carry
176,000 passengers a year, DeLaney said. She said they hope to have a proposal
ready this summer to compete for federal dollars.

Daytona Beach officials
have already backed the project but have one key concern about the potential
costs to maintain the stations, which would eventually be locally owned.

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