BRADENTON, Fla. — Florida Gov. Charlie Crist Wednesday visited four cities to conduct the ceremonial signing of the state's first comprehensive passenger rail bill, which has the potential to jump-start the long-delayed central Florida commuter rail project known as SunRail.
In fact, the commission that oversees policy decisions related to SunRail meets today in Orlando and is expected to get an update on the timeline now that Florida, through the recent passage of the rail bill, has resolved liability issues and approved state funding for the project.
It is not clear at this time if any bonds will be sold to build the 61-mile SunRail line that will run along existing freight tracks between Orange, Volusia, Seminole, and Osceola counties. The project is estimated to cost $432 million for right of way, which will primarily come from CSX Corp., and another $615 million for capital.
The Florida Department of Transportation, which will chip in 25% of the funding, has applied for approximately half the total cost from the Federal Transit Administration. The four counties, in addition to the city of Orlando, will provide the remaining 25% of the cost. DOT spokesman Steve Olson said the state is hoping to hear by this summer about the federal funding.
"Future generations of Floridians will look on this … as a bold step toward modernizing how residents and visitors will travel in our state," Crist said about signing the rail bill. "Individuals and businesses from North Florida to South Florida will benefit from the economic and job opportunities that will arise along each of the rail corridors. Together, we move the Sunshine State into a new era of collaboration and innovation."
Andy Kunz, founder of the relatively new U.S. High Speed Rail Association, said he thinks the bill positions Florida well to receive some of the $8 billion of federal stimulus funding set aside for high-speed rail development across the country.
That's partly because Florida's bill dedicates a funding source for some of the cost, establishes a statewide commission to oversee rail projects, and resolves nagging funding issues with the state's only existing commuter rail line that now runs between Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties.
"We think it moves Florida right up to the top of the list," Kunz said.
Kunz estimated that the state could get between $1 billion and $2 billion in federal funding because of the work it already has done on a previously proposed high-speed train route between Tampa and Orlando. The state already owns the right of way, has most of the permits, and has submitted an application for $2.6 billion in federal funding.
California stands in line to get the biggest share of the federal stimulus funding, as much as $4 billion, Kunz said, because of the advanced stage of its planned high-speed rail system. The state is seeking $4.5 billion in federal stimulus money to fund engineering, design, and construction. Voters last year authorized $9.95 billion of general obligation bonds for start-up funding.
Kunz said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced at a forum last week that the federal stimulus awards would be announced in January.