New grant could cover extending rail to airport
TAMPA - Federal money is available to extend high-speed rail into Tampa International Airport from a station planned for downtown, officials say. The area's leading proponent of an airport stop says she will take steps to pursue the funding, available through a competitive federal grant announced this week. The application deadline is Aug. 6 for more than $2.1 billion in grants to continue development of high-speed corridors. Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern said Wednesday that she will begin her pursuit of funds with a proposal to Hillsborough's Metropolitan Planning Organization. Mulhern is backed by a loosely organized group of business community activists who have long supported measures to enhance the Tampa airport's role in international trade, a challenge in the shadow of flight demand that Orlando's tourist attractions generate.They fear that Orlando's airport and region may gain a major economic development advantage with its terminal plans to serve high-speed rail, commuter rail and proposed light rail. "People don't realize there is an option for more (high-speed) stops so they aren't speaking in favor of it," Mulhern said. "I'm working to rally our business and political leadership to seize this opportunity before it passes us by. "It's a key component to Tampa and Tampa Bay remaining competitive locally, regionally and globally," she said. What's uncertain is who would pay for required feasibility studies and when the extension would be added.Plans for an airport extension could wait for a second phase of high-speed development, said Mulhern, who indicated she did not want to disrupt plans for the rail project between Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando that is scheduled to be operational by 2015. Florida was awarded $1.25 billion in federal funds in January to build the $3.5 billion rail line. If funding is available, the high-speed rail line could extend to Miami by 2018. "The plan that secured this funding is well researched and vetted and it should be left to the experts on the optimal location for the station stops to assure success," said Stuart Rogel, head of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the economic development agency for the seven-county region. Extending high-speed rail to the airport would require overcoming a shortage of space for both high-speed and light-rail trains, which local officials also hope to bring to the airport. Rail officials have said high-speed and light-rail trains cannot run on the same track for safety and technical reasons. Also, the question of what demand there would be for high-speed rail at the airport remains unstudied, officials said.
Reporter Ted Jackovics can be reached at 813-259-7817,