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November 23, 2009

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COMMENTARY

Time to get rail on track
BY SEN. GEORGE LEMIEUX (R-FL)

Editor's Note: High-speed rail has been placed in the spotlight by both the Obama administration and the public transit industry. Here are just two recent examples, reprinted by permission.

This article originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on Nov. 12, 2009.

For too long, Florida has put off investing in commuter rail and all of us are paying the price. Florida’s long stretches of highway combined with increasing traffic congestion have made traveling between major cities difficult and time consuming. This constricts our productivity and the state’s overall economy. Just building more roads is not a solution; we need high-speed and commuter rail. The good news is that right now, Florida has an historic opportunity to develop its passenger rail system, and all that’s needed is a commitment from our State Legislature.

Right now, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is preparing to award $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail construction. The USDOT is considering more than 270 applications from 40 states. Florida’s application for $2.6 billion stands a good chance of winning an award because the state has already secured rights-of-way for high-speed corridors from Tampa to Orlando, plus environmental assessments are complete. But a major hurdle is a firm commitment to construct, operate, and connect local commuter rail lines to the high-speed rail backbone. That is where the State Legislature’s actions in the next two months are critically important.

It is critical the State Legislature hold a special session before the end of the year to approve a rail agreement for SunRail and to identify a sustainable, long-term source of funding for commuter rail. Achieving agreement on these two items will advance Florida’s chances for high-speed rail. In a meeting I requested with USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood, he confirmed that Florida has to bring commuter rail investments to the table if we are going to have a shot at federal high-speed rail funding.

If our legislative leaders pass commuter rail legislation in a special session this year, we will send a positive message to Washington. We will signal a clear understanding that if a statewide high-speed rail network is to be successful, then our communities must have local rail transit options in place.

The legislature’s previous efforts on SunRail have put Florida’s ability for transportation innovations at risk. I thank the lawmakers who have supported SunRail from the beginning and urge the lawmakers in Tallahassee who haven’t to support SunRail. I believe doing so will pave the way for Florida’s next generation transportation system.

Partnering with the Federal government for the construction of a high-speed rail system in Florida is a once in a generation opportunity. Shame on us if this opportunity is wasted. High-speed rail is the future of regional transportation in this country, and Florida stands to, yet again, be a national model of success.

Investing today in rail solutions will immediately bring thousands of new jobs to the state and improved connectivity will boost our economy. A Tampa-Orlando mega corridor filled with investment and employment opportunities will take shape around this new infrastructure. Rail will be the engine that drives transformative economic change for decades to come, all it takes is swift and affirmative action by the State Legislature.

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