Trains in Manatee? Not for at least 25 years

MANATEE — The federal government punched a $1.25 billion ticket Thursday for high-speed rail in Florida, but Manatee County likely won’t be getting on board anytime soon.

The stimulus award that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced will go toward building an 85-mile line between Tampa and Orlando. While passengers could be riding those rails as early as 2014, Manatee might not see any passenger trains for at least another quarter-century, local officials said.

But the delay is not surprising, they quickly added, and shouldn’t diminish the importance of Thursday’s announcement.

“This is just a first step, but it’s a significant step,” said Michael Howe, executive director of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Although the $1.25 billion was less than half of the $2.6 billion the state sought, it will “jump-start” the development of a modern high-speed rail system, he said.

The Tampa-Orlando line, which would be built mostly in the Interstate 4 median, would be the first leg of a system connecting those cities with Miami at a top speed of nearly 170 mph. About 16 daily round-trips between Tampa and Orlando are projected, with one-way fares ranging from $10 to $25.

Stuart Rogel, president and chief executive of the Tampa Bay Partnership business group, called the announcement “monumental” for the area and “a turning point” in the nation’s transportation policy.

The partnership was instrumental in the creation of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, which developed a master transportation plan for the seven-county region.

That plan doesn’t foresee any passenger-rail service in Manatee until at least 2035, and possibly not for another 15 years after that, however.

Under the plan’s “mid-term” outlook, some 116 miles of passenger rail lines would be crisscrossing Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties in 2035. Not until the “long-term” scenario, set in the year 2050, does rail appear in Manatee — in the form of a Bradenton-Tampa line along the U.S. 41 corridor and a commuter rail line linking Bradenton and Sarasota.

The MPO’s long-range plan, which goes out to 2030, also doesn’t include any rail.

The area will have to wait longer for rail service, Howe said, because it’s a smaller market than Tampa, Orlando and Miami. High-speed rail, like the interstate highway system, is constructed incrementally. Once the major routes are built, then feeder lines — such as from Manatee/Sarasota — will be more feasible.

“We then can get serious about building the spokes off the main line between Tampa and Orlando,” Howe said. “It’s going to take a while.”

Amtrak came to the same conclusion in 2002, when it studied a potential high-speed rail line along Interstate 75 between Tampa and Naples. The study said the Tampa-Venice segment should be built first, but only after there was “robust” high-speed rail service connecting Tampa, Orlando and Miami, according to Herald archives.

Florida was among 31 states to share in the $8 billion in stimulus rail money awarded Thursday.

Other big winners:

n California: $2.3 billion to begin work on an 800-mile-long, high-speed rail line tying Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles and San Diego.

n Illinois-Missouri: $1.1 billion to improve a rail line between Chicago and St. Louis so that trains can travel up to 110 mph.

n Wisconsin: $810 million to upgrade and refurbish train stations and install safety equipment on the Madison-to-Milwaukee leg of a line that stretches from Minneapolis to Chicago.

n Washington-Oregon: $590 million to upgrade a rail line from Seattle to Portland, Ore.

n North Carolina: $520 million for projects that will increase top speeds to 90 mph on trains between Raleigh and Charlotte, and double the number of round trips.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.