Plan for Florida's high-speed rail line surges toward reality

Florida is moving ahead with plans to build a high-speed rail system, despite the apparent demise of a bullet-train project in California. Florida Gov. Robert Graham appointed a seven-man High Speed Rail Commission Dec. 27, empowering it to grant a franchise to a private company willing to build a train traveling faster than 125 miles an hour from Tampa to Orlando and Miami.

The commission also has the authority to set the rail system's route, to grant development rights to the franchise company, and to sell tax-free bonds that the company would repay with revenues from the rail system and real estate development.

David Blumberg, a Miami developer, was named chairman of the commission. He says he expects a franchise will be granted by 1990 and the system ready for operation by 1995.

Governor Graham still must appoint an environmental review committee, which will examine each franchise application to determine its impact on the environment.

Eight companies from five countries have expressed an interest in building Florida's high-speed rail system.

A study done by an independent consulting firm says the system would cost between $2.3 billion and $4.3 billion, depending on the type of technology used.

The rail line would attract about 20,000 passengers a day by the year 2000, the study says. The system would be able to pay for itself if the company getting the franchise is able to develop real estate around stations.

Florida's progress in developing a high-speed rail system is in marked contrast to California's attempt.

In California, the Legislature granted a franchise in 1983 to the American High Speed Rail Corporation to build a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Diego. That train was to have been built with Japanese technology. But American High Speed Rail announced last fall that its plans had been shelved.

Still, Alan S. Boyd, president of American High Speed Rail, says the project is not dead.

``In California, we ran out of money before we could complete the financing,'' Mr. Boyd says.

``The timing was wrong. We had anticipated we could start fund raising in February, but we didn't start until July. We ran out of money before we could get started.''

Critics of the California project say the state and American High Speed Rail had tried to move too fast and did not have a firm base and a consensus of support before going ahead.

``Florida has benefitted from not getting ahead of itself like California did,'' says Robert Blanchette, president of the TGV Company.

Mr. Blanchette's company is trying to import French high-speed rail technology into the United States. ``Los Angeles to San Diego [125 miles] is not a high-speed project. It's too short.''

Carl Huff, director of the Florida High Speed Rail Committee, which for two years studied the possibility of building a system in the state, says Florida has two advantages over California.

``We have the support of local elected officials, the environmental community, and the elderly; there is no organized opposition,'' he says. ``And California approached high-speed rail as a purely transportation system. We approached it from both transportation and land-development angles, and the land-development side may be the leading support.''

He says the developers of a Florida train could build an entirely new city somewhere in the interior of the state, and the rail system could serve as a commuter line to take people living there to Orlando or Miami.

In California, some environmentalists and local governments opposed a high-speed rail. Many local officials did not want a train zipping through their communities without stopping.

But Boyd says a bullet train for California still can be revived once the venture capital is found. He disputed his critics' comments that he had moved too fast and did not have enough support.

``But the more support we could have gotten, the better it would have been,'' he says. If I had it to do again, I would have spent more on public relations and less on engineering.''

Ralph Stanley, administrator of the federal Urban Mass Transit Administration, called Florida's blueprint for building a rail system an encouraging sign of cooperation between private enterprise and government.

``I would encourage other states to look at what Florida has done,'' Mr. Stanley says.

``They tied the economic interest of the developers directly into the transportation system before it was built. Our hope is that we can encourage and replicate in other states that kind of involvement from the private sector.''

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