BRADENTON, Fla. — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been making the rounds across the country, telling those vying for $8 billion in federal stimulus funds for high-speed and intercity rail projects that united public and official support — and state funding — are key elements for successful applicants.
LaHood’s delivered the same message to Florida rail supporters on Monday, but he and Federal Transit Administration director Peter Rogoff warned about problems that could derail the state’s application to build high-speed lines from Tampa to Orlando and from Orlando to Miami.
“We need to see commitment not only in terms of votes, but the money to get high-speed rail going,” LaHood told commuter and high-speed rail supporters in Orlando, home of mega-theme parks and rapid population growth that have also fueled mega-traffic congestion.
While LaHood agreed that much work has been done planning for high-speed and commuter rail, he and other officials said Florida has fallen short of funding those projects.
LaHood pointed out that U.S. Transportation Department officials were ready to provide financial support for the long-planned, 60-mile central Florida commuter train system called SunRail. But the project has failed to get final approval from the Legislature for the past two years because of a dispute over liability issues. Portions of the system may be financed with bonds.
FTA officials were ready to sign the funding documents for SunRail, according to U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. “Now the money is in Charleston and Dallas,” said Brown, who chairs the House Transportation subcommittee on railroads.
In another example of Florida’s funding problems, Rogoff pointed out that the FTA already contributed “hundreds of millions” of dollars toward expanding South Florida’s Tri-Rail commuter line, which runs between Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties.
But Rogoff said he has learned that because of operational funding problems the Tri-Rail system might not operate according to the agreement that allowed it to receive federal funds.
“Should that happen, we could get into the difficult hurdle of demanding Florida pay that money back,” Rogoff said.
For several years, Florida lawmakers have failed to pass a dedicated source of revenue to support Tri-Rail operations such as an often-proposed surcharge on rental cars in South Florida.
Clearly, the problems with SunRail and Tri-Rail could affect decisions when U.S. transportation officials consider the applications for high-speed and intercity rail stimulus funds at the end of the year.
And the competition across the country for the $8 billion set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is fierce.
The Federal Railroad Administration announced Tuesday that it received 45 applications from 24 states seeking a piece of $50 billion to advance high-speed rail corridor programs. Another 214 applications were submitted by last Friday’s deadline from 34 states totaling $7 billion for corridor planning and smaller projects.
Among them is the application Florida Gov. Charlie Crist submitted on Friday for a high-speed rail proposal for a Tampa-Orlando-Miami route.
The Tampa-to-Orlando leg, considered the most shovel-ready in the state’s proposal, is estimated to cost $3.5 billion. The Orlando-to-Miami corridor is estimated to cost more than $8 billion and does not include purchasing needed right of ways.
In addition, Florida’s application for federal funds relies heavily on what the state has already spent on studies and to purchase right of ways.
On Monday, LaHood said that is not enough.
He also said Florida needs to consider financial support for other modes of transportation that connect to high-speed rail, such as commuter rail and bus systems.
“I’d give you very high marks for all of you working together,” said LaHood, who stopped short of predicting how successful Florida would be among the applicants for stimulus funding. “But you do not have your act together as far as providing matching money. You know what to do.”
He said Florida has “a great void in Tallahassee when it comes to transportation” funding.
“Other places have money on the table,” said Brown, who also noted that Florida lawmakers have diverted transportation funds to other areas of the state budget. “We’ve got to fund transportation. A dedicated source of revenue is needed.”
It will be difficult to deliver based on what state senators heard in a budget committee meetings on Tuesday.
People and businesses need to push the Legislature for the proper funding, said Bruce Colan, chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and a partner at Holland & Knight LLP.
“If we don’t get together we will lose Tri-Rail and we will lose high-speed rail,” he said at Monday’s meeting.
In an interview later, Colan said that part of the difficulty is that the Legislature doesn’t meet until April and Florida lawmakers need to act on rail funding problems soon so that the state has a better chance of getting federal funds. He acknowledged that there has been talk about a special session being called soon to approve a compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll end up with a special session called for other reasons, but we’ve got to have [transportation funding] as a part of it,” Colan said. “That’s my bottom line.”
Florida could be facing a budget deficit as high as $2.6 billion next fiscal year largely because of rising Medicaid costs and lower-than-anticipated revenue, according to the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.