Sen. Bill Nelson’s office announced today that the U.S. Department of Transportation will award Florida an additional $800 million to fund a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando, on top of the $1.25 billion the project has already received in federal stimulus funds.  The rail system is slated to begin construction in 2012, and should be operational some time in 2015.

“This is fantastic news for Florida,” said Sen. Nelson.  “This will ensure the state remains full speed ahead with high-speed rail construction.  As I’ve said many times, high-speed rail will be a game changer for Florida’s economy, along the likes of the Interstate system and Disney.”

DOT also notified Congress Monday of its intent to award an $8 million planning grant for the proposed high-speed rail line between Orlando and Miami.

The additional funds leave Florida needing about $300 million more in federal funding to reach the $2.6 billion required to finance the project, as estimated by Florida Rail Enterprise, the agency created by the legislature to oversee passenger rail throughout the state.  Nelson’s statement said the remaining federal funds could come next year.

Meanwhile, the Herald-Tribune is reporting that high-speed rail is becoming a point of contention in the race for Florida’s next governor, with Rick Scott accusing Alex Sink of promising big on the rail system, which includes a proposed expansion route to Miami estimated to cost $8 billion, without having the funding for it.

Scott’s own party was intimately involved with the decision to move forward on high-speed rail.

Republican lawmakers, including incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who has joined Scott in attacking Sink, voted for the Florida Rail Enterprise that is tasked with planning, constructing and operating a high-speed rail system.

But, like the high-speed train, the majority of decisions in Tallahassee over the past decade have been made by Scott’s party — the Republicans, who have controlled the governor’s office and Legislature since 1999.

Scott has opposed the use of federal stimulus money, which would be the source of funding for the project, and has issued concern that the rail system would be unable to pay for itself without state subsidies.

In a statement to the Herald-Tribune, however, Scott’s campaign played down opposition to the system overall:

“Rick Scott has no particular aversion to creating a high-speed rail system in Florida,” Trey Stapleton said. “However, he does believe that before the state should commit to such a financial obligation, both the upfront capital and ongoing operating cost, that the investment must be justified by demonstrating a return on investment to the citizens whose tax money would be used to fund the system.”

The Florida Department of Transportation confirmed the projected costs for the second of the proposed network – from Orlando to Miami – at $8 billion, yet acknowledged the figure is speculative and doesn’t include federal dollars that typically fund the bulk of rail projects.

A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration declined to offer details about funding associated with Florida’s high-speed system, but said the U.S. Department of Transportation would be announcing which states would be receiving additional federal money for high-speed rail later this week.

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