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Tue October 8, 2013
Senators Eye Expansion Of New Rail Line Linking Miami-Orlando
All Aboard Florida won’t stop along the Treasure or Space coasts when passenger service starts to speed between Miami and Orlando in late 2015.
Platforms for passengers may someday be in those east coast communities and at more distant points across the state.
First, backers of the $1.5 billion private venture by the subsidiary of Coral Gables-based Florida East Coast Industries want to know they'll have a chance to recoup their investment before adding stops.
That didn't prevent members of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee this week from expressing a desire for the private venture to start making plans to expand the service west to Tampa and north to Daytona Beach and Jacksonville.
However, Rusty Roberts, FEC vice president of corporate development, said the company is strictly focused on getting the 235-mile Miami to Orlando service rolling.
"We want to put the trunk system in first," Roberts said. "One of our goals is to make a profit."
Senators asked how they could help, but continued to push for the potential expansion of a rail system that will require little state assistance.
"You had me at privately financed, I think you had most of the committee members when you said that," said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. "For some reason my presentation, it must be a typo, but where do I get the updated version that has Jacksonville?"
Roberts said the company hopes to become a statewide system, but cities such as Melbourne and Stuart that have expressed interest in being stops need to be patient.
"We're happy to spend the money if we can afford it," Roberts said. "We just ask that government get out of the way."
The same goes for those in Tampa who have been pining for a spur to the Orlando area since Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal funding for a high-speed rail project in 2011.
"I think we had the conversations over the years about trains, we all recognize we want them, but then we had the controversy about the federal dollars," said Committee Chairwoman Nancy Detert, R-Venice.
Scott said the high-speed rail project would be a boondoggle that would never generate more money than it would cost to operate, and he predicted that the state would ultimately be left on the hook for cost overruns.
All Aboard Florida has inked a 45-year-lease with the state Department of Transportation to use land south of the Beachline Expressway between Orlando and Cocoa Beach.
Florida East Coast Industries expects the first passenger trains to begin hourly service in December 2015 on rails that now offer freight service.
Florida East Coast Railway stopped passenger service in 1968, declaring the service unprofitable following a contentious strike by railway workers.
The name of the new line, currently called All Aboard Florida, will be unveiled next year.
The cost per ticket has yet to be set. Roberts said he has gotten in trouble for previously estimating ticket prices and that the prices will have to be competitive with both airlines and highway travel.
Roberts has previously been quoted as saying tickets could run $100 from end to end, with a trip from Miami to West Palm Beach about $20.
Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Royal Palm Beach, cautioned that high ticket prices could keep many Floridians from using the train, particularly because the estimated travel time between Miami to Orlando for the train, with stops only in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, is just over three hours.
"That is a great concern if you're pricing doesn’t beat gas, and then what they have to pay to get to the downtown, and get to the theme parks," Abruzzo said. "Your costs will need to be relatively low to accommodate the consumer."
The passenger trains are expected to travel up to 79 mph from Miami to West Palm Beach, 110 mph between West Palm Beach and the Cocoa "curve," and 125 mph while cruising along the Beachline Expressway --- State Road 528 --- to Orlando.