With the Florida Dept. of Transportation poised to start an estimated $170 million in civil construction work with the first of more than $2 billion in federal dollars for America’s first high-speed rail system, the agency’s High-Speed Rail Industry Forum Nov. 8-9 in Orlando drew more than 1,500 attendees, many of whom were interested in winning future contracts. The purpose of the two-day forum was to inform interested parties about the contracts to be let, the bidding schedule and requirements.
However, as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D.) said, “a cloud of uncertainty” hovered over the conference, with Governor-elect Rick Scott having voiced opposition to the rail line if any state funding was involved.
“It will spur innovation,” said Sen. Nelson. “This could be one of the biggest boosts to Florida’s economy since Disney and Eisenhower created the Interstate system. It will ease congestion and make life better for citizens and the people who fuel our economy.”
Florida began its quest for high-speed rail in the 1970s, and voters passed an initiative for a statewide system in 2000. But those same voters later scuttled the idea, and the concept didn’t get off the ground again until this year, when the state received more than $2 billion in federal dollars for the Orlando-to-Tampa train and $8 million to study extending the line to Miami.
Some of the money requires matching dollars from the state. Nelson estimates Florida’s contribution represents 10% of the cost. Assuming the state moves forward with the match, FDOT figures that the project is still short about $350 million and is asking concessionaires interested in bidding on the design-build-operate-maintain-finance (DBOMF) contracts to include that funding in their proposals.
Providing some hope to officials, Gov.-elect Scott named State Sen. Paula Dockery (R.-Lakeland), a long-time champion of high-speed rail, to serve on his transition team. She spoke at the forum and again voiced her commitment to the project.
“For 21 years, I have been a proponent of high-speed rail,” she said. “I am excited and optimistic that there is no reason to doubt that soon we will break ground on the first high-speed rail [in the United States].”
The first phase, extending 84 mi along Interstate 4 from downtown Tampa to Orlando International Airport, includes five stations, with stops in Lakeland, at Walt Disney World and at the Orange County Convention Center.
“Florida will be a national model,” says Karen J. Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. “This is the beginning of a revolution, and you are just foot soldiers.”
Consortiums hoping to receive the DBOMF contract remained upbeat or declined to comment about the possibility the line will not be built.
Michael C. Turner, a program manager with Skanska USA Civil, part of Florida Rail Ventures, says his team “feels it’s a great project and with the amount of federal funds and the jobs it will create, I’m sure the governor will do due diligence. But we are confident the job will go, given the funding in place.”
The governor-elect is still learning about the project and no one knows at this point what might count toward the state match, adds Howard Newman, a senior project manager with Parsons, which has worked on preliminary engineering for the rail line and plans to bid on early packages and the 30-year DBOMF contract.
Ian Rainey, co-manager of Florida High-Speed Rail, another consortium that includes Flour and Balfour Beatty, says he is encouraged by Scott’s recent comments and expressed that the governor-elect has been deliberate in his discussions about the rail line.
“He’s not closing down the project; he wants to take a look at the numbers to see if it makes sense,” Rainey says.
Kevin Thibault, assistant secretary for engineering and operations at FDOT, says that he looks forward to sitting down with the governor-elect and discussing the opportunities associated with the project.
“It’s not just about moving people, but also creating jobs,” he says.
FDOT estimates that the five early-works contracts, valued at $170 million, will create more than 2,000 jobs in 2011-2012. Four of the contracts will be design-build and the fifth design-bid-build. Tasks include preparing the medians, some widening of I-4, moving signs, replacing drainage culverts, improving interchanges, and demucking and backfilling a site near Orlando International Airport. All work will begin in 2011 and is scheduled for completion before the concessionaire begins construction of the rail line late in 2012.
The federal government also recently provided an additional $8 million to pay for studies to link the train to Miami, a 220-mi corridor. PB America of New York and Jacobs of Pasadena, Calif., began studying that extension in May.
Regardless of the incoming governor’s decision, FDOT is moving forward, planning to advertise its first early-works package in mid-November and its request for qualifications on the DBOMF contract by early December.