As Central Florida lays the groundwork for a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando, officials said Wednesday that they expect to move one step closer to developing the local rail systems that will make it accessible.
At one end of the line, Hilsborough County awaits the results of a referendum that will increase sales taxes to fund a local passenger rail system. At the other, members of Florida’s rail commission said during a meeting Wednesday that the Florida Department of Transportation expects to soon reach a liability agreement with Amtrak that will allow construction to begin on the SunRail system.
The 61-mile SunRail project is expected to allow the high-speed line, which has stops planned at Disney World, the Orange County Convention Center and the Orlando International Airport, to connect with other areas around Orlando.
Kevin Thibault, a rail commissioner and the executive director of the Florida Department of Transportation’s rail enterprise, said the agreement would come in two steps. First, the department needs to finish negotiating an arrangement that would cover the contractors readying local rails, which are currently used by Amtrak, the federal passenger rail line and CSX, a freight carrier.
Thibault said he planned to “sit in a room and get it done,” perhaps as early as next week.
That would allow the project to move forward while Amtrak works on the second step: getting the legislature to approve a “no-fault” liability agreement for areas where the state and federal systems use the same tracks. Each carrier would be responsible for its own damages in case of an accident.
Amtrak already has a no-fault agreement with CSX, according to Thomas Stennis, its regional director of government affairs, as does the state.
State Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who is also a member of the commission, cautioned that history has shown that other interest groups may yet emerge and threaten to derail the effort.
According to the Orlando Sentinel:
“Every time we think we are there, we are not,” said Ring, who was referring to the two times the Legislature voted down SunRail in recent years. A deal was passed on the third attempt, during a specially called session in December.
While the SunRail system is technically separate from the high-speed rail project, Ring pointed out that the projects are closely related.
The commission saw proposed station designs, several of which are intended to allow SunRail passengers to “seamlessly” connect with the high-speed line and local buses in a regional system of so-called “transit-oriented development” that, in time, could reduce sprawling Central Florida’s reliance on cars.