Friday, February 22, 2013
Another infusion of federal cash is keeping central Florida's SunRail project on track to open in 2014.
Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, speaking on behalf of transportation secretary Ray LaHood, paid a visit to a Florida Hospital in Orlando, where one of the stops for the 61 mile long SunRail line is being built. Rogoff was joined by local leaders, state department of transportation officials and Florida lawmakers including U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown.
Rogoff announced the federal government would make $87.3 million available in funding for SunRail, bringing the FTA's investment to date in the Central Florida commuter rail line to $148 million. The Federal government has agreed to pay $178.6 million overall in New Start funds towards construction of the 32-mile long first phase of the line, about half the capital cost.
"We make incremental payments based on the progress of the project," Rogoff said. "They're making great progress, they're ready to spend that money, they're ready to keep these people on the job."
Rogoff highlighted the rail line as a jobs engine, which has already employed 800 people to work in construction.
"But what we're really excited about is all the additional jobs that are coming in from the economic development along the line," he added.
The Florida hospital station is at the heart of a 176 acre "health village" where the hospital is developing medical research offices, apartments and shops.
SunRail officials say there are more than two dozen retail, office, government and residential development projects associated with stations along the rail line, representing $1.6 billion in investment.
Rogoff also talked about the need for additional spending on roads and other infrastructure in Florida-- particularly to fix up hundreds of bridges, highlighting president Obama's call for a $50 Billion infrastructure plan. "If that $50 billion dollars goes through, you're going to see more investment around here, not just on this type of rail project but on highway and sea port projects that will keep the economy of Florida going."
Asked whether sunshine state might see federal funds in the future for high speed rail, Rogoff said "that is going to depend a lot I believe on the leadership of Florida."
Florida's Governor Rick Scott famously turned down federal money for a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa in 2011.
Meanwhile, SunRail officials say the first phase of the commuter rail line, a 32 mile long stretch from DeBary to Sand Lake Road, will open in 2014.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
The gulf between the worldviews of supporters and opponents of high-speed rail was on full display today as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee grilled federal officials for the second time in two weeks on the merits of the California high speed rail program.
To opponents, California's high-speed rail is a costly boondoggle that will serve no one but farmers. To supporters, it's the only way to get ready for an expected population boom and lay the tracks for a more prosperous future.
"The entire high-speed rail program has been a bait and switch operation," said T&I Chair John Mica (R-FL) -- repeating his argument (refuted by federal officials) that none of the programs would deliver trains close to 220 mph.
"The entire California program is imploding," Mica added.
But Rep. Corrine Brown (D-also FL) was ready with a strong retort: "Here we go again. The Republicans didn’t vote for high speed rail funding, they cut future funding -- yet we’re holding our second full committee hearing on the subject in two weeks. We’re ending a year of work and still there’s no surface transportation bill, no FAA bill, no water resources bill."
"This committee is fiddling while the United States transportation infrastructure is burning," Brown added. "If the current leadership of this committee" had been in charge when the interstate highway system was proposed, "we would be a third world country."
But nevertheless, Republicans on the committee expressed disgust that the first portion of the rail would be build in a "cow patch," in central California that won't be connected to either the high-population areas of San Francisco or Los Angeles, that it is now projected to cost more than twice what was originally discussed, and that ridership may not meet projections.
"It's like saying I didn't like dial up internet, so I'm not going to like broadband," scoffed Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, at the concept that current passenger rail ridership could predict high speed rail ridership.
"The freeway is 23 lanes wide in Orange County," lamented Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA). "You can see it from the moon. We need some alternatives."
But opponents had the most airtime, as a sharp exchange between freshman Maryland Republican Andy Harris and Administrator Szabo illustrated.
Harris, literally looking down at Szabo, repeatedly peppered him with questions, and often interrupted his answers. "You're asking the people in the first congressional district of Maryland to pay for this," Harris said.
"There's a value in it to the people of the nation, " Szabo began. "Look at delays at San Francisco and Los Angeles aiports --"
But Szabo got no further as Harris spoke over him. "The people in my district don't go to San Francisco or Los Angeles."
Szabo tried again. "It affects the timing --" before being cut off again.
Szabo also tried to explain why the first section is in the Central Valley (it's because that part is ready to go, and funding -- under the stimulus bill -- must be spent sooner rather than later) rather than in the San Francisco or L.A. areas but got lost in bureaocratese. "This comes down to congressional mandates under PRIA and ARRA, the ability to shift the dollars is not there, it is not there."
Asked about the hearings while he was holding a separate conference call on TIGER grants, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who was on the hot seat himself last week, said:
"Well, given the fact that I was in Philadelphia and now I’m in Cincinnati I have no idea what took place. I can tell you that as a result of the hearing that I went to, which was about 10 days ago before the Transportation Committee, I made a very strong case to the committee and to the Congress."
He continued: "High-speed rail will continue to be a priority for President Obama’s administration. The President and the Vice President have a very, very big broad view that high-speed rail is what the American people want, people in the states that where we’ve funded, in California and Illinois and along the Northeast Corridor, have been working on high-speed rail for at least a decade or more. Certainly in California they’ve been working on it for 15 years. And we are not going to be dissuaded by a few detractors who are too short-sighted to see the value of high-speed rail. We’ve made more than $10 billion worth of investments, this is the president’s vision, high-speed rail is coming to America, it’s what the American people want, and we will continue to press ahead with it."