Miami-Dade stepping up efforts to land high speed rail
By Risa Polansky
Miami-Dade leaders are kicking a push for local high-speed rail into overdrive, plotting to ask for more federal funding and to rally support from other localities and the state.
High-speed rail has become a focal point in the Obama administration's national transportation vision.
States across the US, including Florida, are vying to jump aboard and secure some of the $8 billion federal stimulus up for grabs.
Plans for a Tampa-Orlando line are moving full-speed ahead, with some study done and right-of-way lined up.
The state has applied also for $30 million in federal funding for environmental studies on a potential Miami-Orlando fast-train link.
Miami-Dade Commission Chair Dennis Moss is aiming for more.
He hopes to request added funds for more study before an October deadline.
And transit Chair Barbara Jordan is asking the county's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs to whip up a plan to mobilize with other local governments and stakeholder groups to rally state support and present a regional front for high-speed rail linking South and Central Florida.
Both commissioners at a public powwow last week agreed to reach out to counterparts in other localities to strategize.
The two plan to meet again in two weeks to assess progress and lay out next steps.
One should be asking for more funding, Mr. Moss said.
Completing both environmental and preliminary engineering work now would better position the potential Orlando-Miami link for future funding, he insisted.
But to get any money, state and local leaders must step up support, insiders maintain.
Mr. Moss, along with the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, hit the Hill in Washington, DC, to meet with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other government leaders.
The overarching message from the feds: "If you don't have your act together, you're wasting your time," Mr. Moss said.
Bigwigs such as Mr. LaHood and Vice President Joe Biden have said they see potential in a high-speed train here.
But it's become clear a lack of concrete support at the state level could derail the effort.
Local legislators in Washington "all expressed support" for a state bid for high-speed rail, and the US transportation secretary says Florida has a shot, said Humberto Alonso, the chamber's transportation and infrastructure chair, at the meeting with commissioners.
But the state's track record — or lately, lack of one — for supporting existing rail systems could prove a roadblock.
"Unfortunately, what they see as a weakness for us… is the support that such an effort would receive from the state," he said.
The feds have taken note of what Mr. Alonso called "false starts" on providing South Florida commuter line Tri-Rail with dedicated state funding and approving a proposed Central Florida rail line, SunRail, during this year's state legislative session.
"Both of those are seen as a complement to high-speed rail," he said, adding later that when it comes to supporting regional and federal projects, "it's not an either/or proposition."
Misty Brown, the county's federal affairs coordinator in the intergovernmental affairs office, said Florida's high-speed rail funding application could carry less weight without a cohesive show of support from state leaders.
And funding is critical, she added.
Now, local transportation projects aren't seeing much in the way of monetary commitments. But to have a shot at federal dollars, that's got to change.
In California, voters in 2008 agreed to support fast rail there, committing to bond out $10 billion to support the project.
Here, there's been no recent solid effort to unite residents or elected leaders in support.
"We'll be spinning our wheels if we don't have any leadership on a statewide basis," Ms. Jordan said. But "based on our history in the state of Florida, how do we get that momentum going?"
She and Mr. Moss agreed to come to the county commission's first September meeting with a resolution supporting high-speed rail.
"We're going to have to rally the troops" here and in the region, Mr. Moss said.
And verbal support from the governor and Legislature won't cut it — there must be substantive support, he said.
Mr. Alonso of the chamber agreed, emphasizing also that South and Central Florida must present a united front.
The chamber is working to link with others across the region, he said.
Also, both the chamber and the South Florida Regional Business Alliance passed resolutions in support of high-speed rail — and other groups should do the same, Mr. Alonso urged.
Ms. Jordan suggested also bringing in organizations with "resources," such as the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, rather than relying only on "rhetoric."
Mr. Moss acknowledged an Orlando-Miami link wouldn't be funded right away but said it's vital to secure money now to push studies forward and position the proposed line for future funding.
Orlando and Tampa are ahead when it comes to studies, he said, but a line between Miami and Orlando — two of the biggest and busiest destinations in the state — "makes the most sense."