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Florida TODAY Editorial of July 9, 2010

09 Jul 2010 2:51 PM | Anonymous

Brevard cities should continue studying revived Amtrak train route
Brevard County needs any economic boost it can get as it heads into the difficult post-shuttle era, and here’s one that has potential:

Restoring Amtrak passenger service down Florida’s East Coast with stops in Titusville, Cocoa and Melbourne.

County and city officials have been studying the idea since it was proposed last year as part of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan to create jobs and improve public transportation.

The White House has $2.5 billion available this year on top of $8 billion allocated last year to revitalize existing rail service and start new projects, including the already approved high-speed rail plan between Orlando and Tampa. The 2011 budget includes another $1 billion in funding for rail.

The Florida Department of Transportation has applied for money to revive the Jacksonville-Miami route, which was canceled more than 40 years ago.

Cities along the 350 miles of track — Titusville, Cocoa and Melbourne among them — have jumped at the prospect, conducting feasibility studies and picking sites for stations that could see trains starting in 2012.

It’s a smart planning approach that should continue because the trains could aid employment and businesses, particularly in places such as Cocoa Village and historic downtown Melbourne, where trains and their passengers would stop.

For instance, an Amtrak train station in Winter Park, where Amtrak has stopped since 1971, had 30,948 passengers last year. The city’s investment to maintain the station is $10,000.

In all, state officials project 176,000 people would initially travel the route, creating more than 6,300 indirect, permanent jobs and $259 million in annual earnings for the region by 2021.

John Titkanich, Cocoa’s community development director, summarized his city’s interest, telling FLORIDA TODAY:

“We subsidize building and widening roads for vehicles far more and at a greater cost than rail. What is happening nationally is beginning to hit Florida, Central Florida and now Brevard County. Passenger rail is an integral component to a larger multi-modal transportation network that will provide transportation choices to many.”

That said, financial concerns about the project’s long-term viability are legitimate and need scrutiny before local cities could consider making a final commitment, should Florida be awarded the stimulus money in October.

The route would require about $268 million in stimulus money for start-up and capital costs. The state and Amtrak also will need to contribute $10 million in its first year of operation alone, with a 20 percent match from cities with stations.

Beyond that, the stimulus dollars are not enough to create a robust passenger rail industry nationwide, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog arm of Congress.

The report also questioned the ability of states such as Florida to fund rail capital and operating expenses in the future with states and localities facing severe budget deficits for several years.

However, rail supporters say one funding mechanism gaining interest is a federal trust fund based on user fees to replace the expiring highway trust fund. That could help the rail service pay for itself.

And help Brevard gain needed jobs and revenue for businesses from trains rolling down the tracks.

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