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Orlando-to-Tampa rail proposal chugs along

Brightline, the only privately owned passenger railway in the United States, pulls in a station in South Florida. [Photo by Brightline]

Passenger rail service in Florida wasn’t included when the White House recently awarded $8.2 billion for major rail projects.

But Christine Kefauver, the senior vice president of corporate development for the Brightline rail service, says the company is “making tremendous strides” toward an Orlando-to-Tampa route after completing a project connecting Miami and Orlando.

“It is complex to get to Tampa, but we’re up to the challenge,” Kefauver told the Florida House Infrastructure Strategies transportation and modals subcommittee.

What is known as the Sunshine Corridor Partnership seeks to connect the SunRail commuter-rail service in Central Florida to Brightline at Orlando International Airport and link the Orange County Convention Center, south International Drive and the Disney Springs areas.

“We've been in the Sunshine Corridor conversation for about two years, and we really do see us making tremendous strides on that coming up soon,” Kefauver said.

Brightline, which launched in 2018 in South Florida, completed a 170-mile, $6 billion project in September to connect Orlando to the system.

While questions have been raised over Brightline’s financing, ticket prices and timeline to operate solely on fares, Kefauver said the company is planning to grow and has ordered 30 passenger cars from Siemens Mobility.

Meanwhile, with the 2024 legislative session starting Jan. 9, Rep. Karen Gonzalez Pittman, R-Tampa, has submitted a $50 million proposal (House Form 1989) for rail improvements in the Interstate 4 corridor, where Brightline plans to roll in the median at speeds up to 150 mph.

“These funds and improvements will be used to attract federal and private funds to accelerate a passenger rail connection from Tampa to Orlando,” the proposal reads.

Florida in 2011 turned down $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, but Florida Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue said the right of way along the I-4 corridor is reserved for passenger rail.

“We saw a need many years ago” for intercity passenger rail, Perdue told the House panel.

In her proposal, Gonzalez Pittman pointed to an anticipated $50 million in federal funding for the I-4 link. She also tied the state money to the Moving Forward Florida program, a wide-ranging transportation initiative that includes three I-4 projects.

“Incorporating a modest scope of additional structure work into the Moving Florida Forward program enables the future implementation of an intercity passenger rail within the corridor and will minimize future disruption to traffic while optimizing the cost of infrastructure within this critical transportation corridor,” Gonzalez Pittman’s proposal says.

Backers say rail service can help reduce vehicles on Central Florida’s congested roads.

But Rep. David Smith, R-Winter Springs, cautioned that commuter rail loses “significant” money every year, pointing to SunRail.

“It costs more to operate than it takes in. That cost is going to be shifted either to an additional penny sales tax, maybe locally, or property tax. Somebody’s going to pay that bill,” Smith said. “As you expand a rail network that loses money every time it runs, I hope we find that collaboration and partnership between local, state, federal, private. … I think we need much greater thought before people continue to use the term success.”

The Biden administration announced $8.2 billion for 10 passenger rail projects across the country. They include $3 billion for Brightline West’s planned $12 billion high-speed rail system between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles.

The service is expected to open before the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Other projects in the White House announcement involve Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maine, Illinois and Alaska.


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