Two big leaps forward in the past week may be propelling two rail systems toward Central Florida sooner than expected.
Amtrak relented on insurance negotiations with state lawmakers for the SunRail commuter rail system, and the state received $342 million from the federal government for its high-speed rail system.
“This will be vital to moving transportation forward in Central Florida,” said Congressman John Mica, the new chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Mica had been a key negotiator in U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s office on Dec. 8. Sitting across from Mica, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman finally backed down on negotiations that Amtrak had pushed to have the state pay for accidents between SunRail and Amtrak trains.
In exchange, Boardman left with a promise from lawmakers that they would push for legislation that would give Amtrak that accident insurance, though how and when that will happen was not specified. That deal had been previously offered to Amtrak, but the company had held out for a firmer commitment, which would not come.
“SunRail is a critical piece in the state’s overall transportation system, and I am very pleased that we are moving forward in a positive manner to finalize SunRail by the end of the year,” U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown said in a statement. Brown also participated in the Washington, D.C., meeting that brought about the agreement.
That move forward had been stalled in part by Amtrak, which had been attempting to negotiate with state lawmakers for more than three years.
Now that the rail giant has ended its opposition to the system, lawmakers are optimistic about moving toward constructing it.
Despite having a later predicted date for groundbreaking and construction, Florida’s high-speed rail system already has 90 percent of its funding in place, thanks to a hefty final chunk delivered by the federal government on Dec. 10.
The $342 million in funding for the project puts the system near fully funded, including the remaining 10 percent to be paid for in installments by the state. The entire project is estimated to cost $2.7 billion.
The system has triggered a melee of potential builders submitting plans for the system’s design. That process could be a protracted one, with construction predicted to begin at the end of 2012, at the earliest.
Once that construction begins, an infusion of jobs into Central Florida will follow, Brown said.
She predicted that even more jobs would arrive once the train is operational.
The high-speed rail system could become the first of its kind in the nation if it opens in 2015 as currently predicted. But Central Florida’s system could be a truncated version of the original system if Tampa cannot supply its own commuter rail system to connect with the train, Mica said.
In November, he suggested that the system could be built in smaller phases and given more concentrated test markets, such as an initial phase between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World.
Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley had applauded Mica’s efforts to show that high-speed rail could be economically viable.
“I think that it could really help the economy,” Bradley said.