Work begins on Florida's high speed rail

5:30 PM, Jul 19, 2010   |    comments
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Video: No high speed rail stop at TIA?

A computer rendering shows what a proposed high speed rail line would look like on the Interstate 4 corridor.

Tampa, Florida --  The next time you drive along I-4 between Tampa and Orlando, you might see workers in the median.

Geotechnical engineers have begun the process of testing the soil to prepare the ground for the high speed tracks in 2012.  The ground will be tested every 200 feet, rail officials said.

"We've got several hundred people already working on this sector.  They're out taking soil samples, property surveying, doing real estate estimates, they're doing appraisals, property searches," said Kevin Thibault, executive director of the Florida Rail Enterprise which is overseeing the project.

Thibault says construction of the project will add 5,000 jobs each year, with 11,000 jobs at the height of construction.

Jobs are a big part of why Florida is getting high speed rail. U.S. Senator Bill Nelson reminded state transportation leaders of that during a Monday briefing on the project in Tampa.

"The purpose of the stimulus bill is jobs," he said, encouraging them to stay on schedule with their plans.

In January, Florida's decades of working toward high speed rail became a reality when President Barack Obama announced the state was slated to get $1.25 billion in stimulus funds to put the plans in motion.

Additional federal funds were promised in the future to round out the Tampa-Orlando route. 

The first grant of $66.6 million was awarded in May with another proposal for funding going out next month.

A future link between Orlando and Miami is in the planning stages. Nazih Haddad, COO of Florida Rail Enterprise, estimates it will be another three years to get that segment of the high speed rail line at the same level of readiness as the Tampa-Orlando route.

In the decades long worth of planning, the state gathered up land in preparation for high speed rail.  Most of it lies in the I-4 corridor.

So far, the state owns 93% of the land needed.  The remaining 7% will either be acquired through eminent domain or through willing sellers, rail officials said.

Once the train gets rolling in 2015, it will become the first true high speed rail line in the country that runs on its own dedicated tracks.

There are five planned stops:  downtown Tampa at the Old Morgan Street jail, Polk County, Walt Disney World (Disney donated the land for the stop), the Orlando Convention Center and the Orlando International airport.

The Orlando airport stop has raised the eyebrows of a lot of people in the Bay area and has people asking, if Orlando's airport is getting a stop and Miami is proposed to have one too, then why not Tampa?

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said, "To put high speed rail at Tampa International Airport would be such a mistake.  What a waste of a very expensive system."

Mayor Iorio says light rail and buses are a more efficient and less expensive way to connect the airport to high speed rail.

"We have a multi-modal, a well thought out, integrated plant and that's actually what Hillsborough County and that's what TBARTA has," said Mayor Iorio.

She pointed out during the Monday briefing, that $700,000 has already been spent to plan for light rail between downtown, Westshore and airport.

She explained her vision for the downtown multi-modal station, "One floor would have high speed rail, another floor will have light rail that will connect you to the airport, connect you to Westshore, connect you to USF and the bottom level will have a myriad of buses."

Light rail isn't going to happen anytime soon in Hillsborough County unless voters approve a penny sales tax referendum for transportation in November.

The penny sales tax would help pay for light rail, and expansion of the bus system and go toward improving roads.

Mayor Iorio says the first light rail line linking the USF/North Tampa area to downtown could start rolling by 2018.

That is, of course, if voters approve.

"I believe this referendum will pass.  If it doesn't, then we take a look at why it didn't, get voter feedback and then we put another proposal on the ballot for 2010," said Mayor Iorio.

Mayor Iorio isn't the only one in support of light rail.

"For downtown Tampa, that is absolutely critical to have a commuter rail system to get you around the metro area," said U.S. Senator Bill Nelson.

The Orlando area is working on linking Sun Rail to its high speed rails top at the airport.

The combination of light rail and high speed rail will help in the creation of a so-called super-region and super-economy, transportation officials said.

If all goes as planned, you'll be able to take the less than one hour high speed ride between Tampa and Orlando by 2015.

It's estimated 2 million people will ride the high speed train each year.

Still at question... how much it's going to cost you.

Previous estimates put ticket costs anywhere from $10 to $30, depending on how often you ride.

These numbers will likely change as Rail Enterprise continues to study ridership and what people are willing to pay to ride. 

Laura Kadechka, 10 Connects

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