Florida on Monday got the news it will receive an additional $808 million from the federal government to build a bullet train line from Tampa to Orlando — but the grant is $300 million short of the amount the state needs to start construction.
Though Florida did not get the full amount it sought, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., praised the $808 million grants.
“This is fantastic news for Florida,” Nelson said in a statement. “This will ensure the state remains full speed ahead with high-speed rail construction.”
Last year Florida requested $2.5 billion to build the segment, but when President Obama traveled to Tampa in January he only gave Florida $1.21 billion, an amount federal officials described as a down payment. Earlier this year Florida asked for $1.1 billion more, the balance of construction funds.
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But instead of giving Florida the money it needs, the federal government gave it yet another installment.
Nelson said the federal government may provide the final $300 million next year.
While building a Tampa-Orlando track would be a coup for Florida, experts say the project will be viable only if the track is extended to Miami because the bulk of potential passengers are in South Florida. These include international visitors whose trips begin in Miami and residents of densely-populated urban centers like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
Originally, the Florida Department of Transportation asked the Federal Railroad Administration for $30 million to finance an Orlando-Miami extension study. But when Obama came to Tampa in January, he did not announce any money for the Miami segment. So the Department of Transportation adopted a different strategy earlier this year and asked for a smaller amount, $8 million, for the study.
Nelson said Monday that money had been approved.
However, the prospect of building a high-speed rail extention to Miami anytime soon is remote. The estimated cost of the 235-mile route from Orlando International Airport to a transit hub near Miami International Airport would be more than $8 billion.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told El Nuevo Herald last week that the Obama administration is committed to building a national high-speed rail system over 25 years at a cost of $500 billion.
LaHood did not say if the Obama administration was committed to giving Florida all the money it needs to build a bullet train from Tampa to Miami, but a map of “designated” high-speed rail corridors on the Federal Railroad Administration’s website — http://www.fra.dot.gov/Pages/203.shtml — includes the planned Tampa-Orlando-Miami line.
Despite not getting all the money they wanted, Florida transportation officials welcomed the $808 million grant, saying it shows the federal government liked the state project and really wants it built.
“It’s a very positive thing,” said Nazih Haddad, chief operating officer for the Florida Rail Enterprise, which oversees the project. “Clearly, it shows that the Federal Railroad Administration is quite serious about this project.”
As evidence, Haddad said the $800 million grant is two-thirds of the entire amount — $2.5 billion — the federal government had available for high-speed rail nationwide this time around.
As for the unfunded $300 million, Haddad said Florida will explore “various funding mechanisms” soon, including the option of asking the federal government for more money later.
In the past Florida officials have said they are confident that eventually they’ll get the full amount for construction on the 84-mile segment from downtown Tampa to Orlando International Airport largely along the median of Interstate 4. Haddad said work will go ahead next spring to prepare the I-4 median to accommodate the bullet train.
Overall, the current effort amounts to a second chance for Florida to build the high-speed rail system it has sought over the last two decades.
In 1999, a prior $6.3-billion plan to run a bullet train from Miami to Orlando and Tampa collapsed when then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush refused to spend any more state money on the proposal known as Florida Overland eXpress.