TAMPA — Tampa lost a chance to enhance travel and economic development links with Orlando when Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 declined $2.4 billion in federal funding to build the first leg of a high-speed rail project between the two cities, with later plans to reach Miami.
Some residents and officials accepted news last year of a privately funded, conventional passenger train proposal between Miami and Orlando as consolation of sorts, because All Aboard Florida officials indicated their project eventually could be extended to Tampa.
But recently, Tampa Bay area business and elected officials report hearing some disconcerting buzz .
While plans for the new Miami-Orlando trains are on target to begin service in late 2015, local officials worry a second phase of the project could bypass Tampa for an Orlando-Jacksonville route.
If All Aboard Florida ultimately reaches Tampa, it would strengthen Interstate 4 corridor ties, but a competitive factor is involved as well. The new passenger railroad is providing a boost to Orlando International Airport, which will become the state's first airport with a train station and a direct rail connection, in an agreement signed Wednesday.
The concern over falling behind with All Aboard Florida has created a sense of urgency among local invitees to a regional transportation summit scheduled Thursday in Tampa.
The session Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe organized months ago to discuss transportation advancements along the Interstate 4 corridor, one of the nation's 10 so-called “mega-regions” due to its population and strong prospects for growth, has taken on an additional focus, Sharpe said.
“I've heard about Jacksonville from many different sources, one of the latest during talks at a (local) transportation subcommittee meeting,” said Sharpe, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer.
“I was on a call last week where it was becoming clear we would not be next for All Aboard Florida ...if only through the grapevine.”
Sharpe said Florida East Coast Industries, which created All Aboard Florida, has not told him anything regarding its plans beyond Miami and Orlando and expects it won't until it's ready to make a decision.
“But we must be poised and prepared and do everything possible to demonstrate that we are a massive market and a very important destination,” Sharpe said.
All Aboard Florida - Operations LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, which is an affiliate of the Florida East Coast Railway. All Aboard Florida owns the easement right to operate passenger trains in Florida East Coast Railway's freight corridor.
Donald Robinson, president and chief operating officer of All Aboard Florida, said in a telephone interview Thursday it is premature to consider any possible second-stage plans.
“We are really focused on the Miami-Orlando segment and looking forward to breaking ground by the end of this year,” Robinson said. “It is way premature to consider the order and priority (for a route extension). When that time comes it will be affected by the economy and what passengers want.
“When Governor Scott was looking at the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line, there was significant support from the Miami delegation. The All Aboard Florida team is going to Tampa to talk about the Miami-Orlando project. It's a statewide project, not just Miami-Orlando.”
The project could be the first private passenger railroad in the United States since the federally backed Amtrak was created in 1970. The only other U.S. privately backed passenger rail proposal is one pending between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
U.S. Rep. John Mica said Thursday Tampa could have the upper hand in an extension of All Aboard Florida — if the area overcomes longstanding shortfalls in transit service.
“The first thing is to assist the private sector in making certain the Orlando-Miami train is a success,” said Mica, the influential Republican from Winter Park who's held leadership roles with Congressional transportation committees and through the years has encouraged Tampa Bay to adopt progressive transportation plans.
“I think Tampa has a leg up given ridership serving Orlando will be off the charts. If I were an investor, I would definitely look to connecting with Tampa,” he said. “But that will depend on Tampa's ability to get its act together. You can't just dump passengers in downtown Tampa.”
Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers in Washington, said he believed All Aboard America would be focused on making the Orlando-Miami leg succeed, but noted that Florida East Coast Railway owns the freight track from Miami to Jacksonville, providing a possible advantage for selecting an East Coast route.
All Aboard America has indicated its plans include generating revenue from both passengers on 16 daily round trips between Miami and Orlando and commercial development on property along the route, the latter a major rationale for Florida East Coast Industries to pursue the passenger train project.
The passenger service is expected to be profitable given the familiarity international travelers have with rail travel, said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Amtrak, which operates between Miami, Orlando and Tampa, did not comment on possible competition with All Aboard Florida, but Jeans-Gail said passengers could benefit from competition.
All Aboard Florida stations will be at Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando International. Trains will travel at 79 mph between Miami and West Palm Beach, 110 mph between West Palm Beach and Cocoa and 125 mph between Cocoa and Orlando International.
The proposed high-speed rail trains would have reached speeds of 160 mph between Tampa and Orlando and 180 mph between Orlando and Miami, but unlike All Aboard Florida that will share tracks with freight trains, the high-speed rail project required its own right-of-way.
Sharpe said he wanted to be careful the local effort is not perceived as Tampa simply trying to stay ahead of or jump in front of Jacksonville.
But he hoped transportation planners from area Metropolitan Planning Organizations would get the message at Thursday's summit to work toward increasing regional connectivity, with All Aboard Florida “a big part.”
The summit on Thursday will include officials with All Aboard Florida, Orlando's SunRail commuter line, MetroPlan Orlando and a video address by Mica, along with business, transportation and elected local officials from six regional counties.