(Pic by mitch59)

China is one of many foreign nations making a push to be part of Florida’s emerging construction of high-speed rail for bullet trains, first between Tampa and Orlando, then onto Miami.

The Florida Rail Enterprise – which operates within the Florida Department of Transportation – held a series of public meetings in Tampa, Lakeland, and Orlando to give the public an early look at plans for the first leg of the project, which will run along the I-4 corridor.

Surveying and soil sampling has already begun on I-4; construction is expected to begin next spring. The state hopes to have trains running at speeds up to 168 miles per hour between Tampa and Orlando by 2015, Florida Rail Enterprise Executive Director Kevin Thibault told a crowd in Tampa.

After President Obama announced that Florida would receive $1.25 billion in stimulus money to build a rail line from Tampa to Orlando, the project was fast-tracked. It is a chunk of change that has foreign train builders lining up to present bids.

Thibault began his presentation with a history of high-speed rail in the world, and all of the countries on his list have shown interest in taking part in Florida’s project.

Representatives of China, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, and Spain have “come to visit” Florida to offer to become part of the project, Thibault told the crowd.

Input from foreign companies specializing in bullet train technology will be essential to the success of a high-speed rail, as the Tampa-Orlando leg will be the first-ever in the United States, according to Al Maloof, a transportation expert with consulting offices in Miami and Tallahassee.

“All of the foreign countries involved hold the expertise to build what’s required. We just don’t have that in the United State yet,” Maloof says. “High-speed rail is such a complex industry where there is no room for error. You have got to get it right the first time.”

Japan, for instance, has been running high-speed rail since 1964. France followed suit in the 1980s, then Germany and Spain. High-speed rail is big business in China — where there are 2,206 miles of track and another 8,200 miles in the planning stages, according to Thibault.

China has already attempted to be a player in plans to build high-speed rail in California, which received $2.25 billion in stimulus money for a rail system there. In April, The New York Times reported that China offered to help finance building a high-speed track in California, a state that has long been in dire economic straits.

Negotiations with any foreign entity could impact Florida for years to come. According to Thibault, the winners of contracts to construct the project will also handle operation and maintenance once trains start rolling. “Whoever gets the contract will be looking to get going right away to begin bringing in money,” he says.

Maloof says bids will be awarded in phases and will most likely be a consortium of companies (both domestic and foreign), each specializing in different aspects of what it takes to get the project done.

As the first high-speed rail line in the U.S., the stakes are high for the Tampa/Orlando project, but challenges have popped up before construction has even begun.

Plans call for terminal stations in downtown Tampa and at Orlando International Airport, with intermediate stops in Lakeland, at Walt Disney in Orlando, and the Orange County Convention Center along the 84-mile stretch.

But with the line’s $2.6 million price tag, the federal stimulus money will not cover the whole project, leaving cash-strapped Florida to come up with the rest. The legislature has pledged $60 million a year for the project, Thibault says, but that does not kick in until 2014.

There is also concern that without a light rail system to connect users to the line in downtown Tampa, riders cannot be taken into the heart of the area. There is hope for light rail funding in the Tampa Bay area, but it hinges on a penny sales tax vote in Hillsborough County in November.

Voters will decide if paying an extra penny sales tax is worth funding road improvements, increased bus service, and the construction of a light rail network.

Florida rail officials and proponents of light rail have made efforts to distance themselves from each other’s projects. Thibault tells The Florida Independent that even without light rail connections, bus transit from the high-speed rail station would still be an option for riders.

During his presentation, however, Thibault touched on how important a light rail network in Tampa Bay will be to the success of the project, saying it is a “major component.”

Many believe the Tampa-Orlando leg is a test case, but will not be the money-maker that a planned line from Orlando to Miami could become. The Tampa-Orlando project got the first nod from the state and federal government because planning has gone on for years for a high-speed rail line along I-4.

But while planning was completed, actual construction continually died due to politics, until the Obama administration made it a priority, according to Tampa Bay activist and communications specialist Rosemary Goudreau, who attended the Tampa presentation.

“Jeb Bush killed it every time,” she says.

The existing plans for the Tampa-Orlando track made the project “shovel-ready,” but population densities will most likely not be enough to turn a profit, Maloof says. Thibault estimates 2 million riders a year will use the leg, and that the project will create 5,000 jobs in construction, maintenance, and operations.

Plans are already underway for the Orlando-Miami leg, as well, with hopes after that of connecting Orlando to Jacksonville, and then possibly Jacksonville to Atlanta, Ga., according to Thibault.

That prospect excites transportation expert Maloof. “A high-speed rail from Orlando to Miami I believe will be very successful. You are talking about some of the highest population centers in the nation,” he says. “Tampa to Orlando doesn’t have that.”

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