BRADENTON, Fla. — Florida is on a fast track to complete the first high-speed rail project in the U.S. with a new application for $1.12 billion in funding from the Federal Railroad Administration’s service development program.
The state received $1.25 billion in January made available initially under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the first phase of the fast train between Tampa and Orlando. But that was short of the $2.65 billion the state requested in its ARRA application.
The state is now hoping to get the additional funding from $2.5 billion the FRA has available across the country for high-speed and intercity passenger rail service development programs under the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for 2010.
The Florida Rail Enterprise within the state’s transportation agency is overseeing the project. It submitted an application and a financial plan late last week in advance of the FRA’s deadline of Aug. 6.
In a cover letter, Gov. Charlie Crist pointed out that the state already has done major environmental studies and has a Record of Decision, which essentially provides federal clearance for the project to begin design and construction.
The state plans to build the first segment from Tampa to Orlando in the median of Interstate 4 and has purchased all but approximately 8% of the right of way. Studies are under way for the second leg of the system from Orlando to Miami.
“Florida recognizes the great demand and competition for these funds,” Crist wrote. “However, Florida is uniquely positioned to bring to life the 'Vision of High Speed Rail in America’ by starting … service in 2015 in the heart of America’s most popular family tourist destination and showcasing this technology and its benefits to tens of millions of Americans each year.”
If the request for additional funding is granted, the state will be required to provide a 20% state match, or $347 million, excluding capitalized interest and other fees.
In the financial plan, the FRE said it expects the state’s match to be funded through a public-private partnership. A concessionaire for a design, build, operate, maintain, and finance contract for the Tampa-to-Orlando leg will be selected in late 2011.
“The concessionaire may utilize a variety of financing instruments, including private-activity bonds, Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loans, bank loans, and/or equity to provide matching funds,” the financial plan said.
Under the contract, the FRE anticipates using availability payments after operations begin to repay the concessionaire for providing the matching funding. The state would repay the match using $60 million a year set aside by the Legislature in a special session late last year for recurring rail enterprise funding.
Florida is generally considered the frontrunner for implementing its high-speed rail program under the current presidential initiative.
But it’s only ahead of the game because the state has planned, studied, hired numerous consultants, and spent millions of dollars since the Legislature enacted the Florida High Speed Rail Transportation Commission Act in 1984.
Since then at least two major efforts to jump-start the system have failed, largely over concern that the state would be responsible for most of the funding.
In the late 1990s, Florida considered a train system called the Florida Overland eXpress, or FOX, along the same route proposed today. But then-Gov. Jeb Bush killed funding for the project after coming into office in 1999. By then, the state had already spent $22.4 million on the effort.
In 2000, voters in Florida amended the constitution and mandated the construction of a bullet train connecting Tampa, Orlando, and Miami at an estimated construction cost of between $3.5 billion and $17.1 billion.
Bush said the system could bankrupt the state and convinced voters in 2004 to repeal the constitutional amendment. By then, another $13 million in state and federal funds had been spent on the project.