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Mica: Bunnell Still Has “Fighting Chance” for a Train Station; Data and State’s Will Are Key

| June 9, 2010

Bunnell's prime spot for a depot: picture the station platform to the right. (© FlaglerLive)

When the federal government awarded $8 billion in economic stimulus funds to rail projects around the country in January, Florida’s proposal to reinstate passenger service on the Rail America-owned Florida East Coast line didn’t qualify. The Florida Department of Transportation had submitted 10 year old ridership estimate numbers in its hurried application. It was a costly mistake. Had the East Coast rail project been selected, the federal government would have financed 100 percent of the project.

There’s a silver lining. Had the project been selected, the eight stations along the 326-mile line between Jacksonville and Miami — St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Titusville, Cocoa, Melbourne, Vero Beach, Fort Pierce and Stuart — would not have included Bunnell. Later this month, the federal government is announcing a second round of federal transportation awards. Florida is again in the running for its East Coast rail line.

So is Bunnell, U.S. Rep. John Mica, the Orlando Republican and ranking member of the House Transportation Committee, told FlaglerLive in an interview Wednesday, shortly after he chaired a conference call with Bunnell city officials, the state’s transportation department and a top staffer from the U.S. House transportation subcommittee “to find out,” Mica said, “where we were with Bunnell’s request and also to find out where we are with the whole route proposal.”

Here’s where they are: Bunnell may have missed the cut the first time around, but “being rejected gives them a shot to get in,” Mica said. In this second round the federal government is reducing its share of funding to 80 percent. The rest would be required of local communities or the state. “The state hasn’t really decided where they would get that money,” Mica said, which doesn’t play in Florida’s favor: it shows a lack of commitment (although the state Legislature did finally commit this year to the the $1.2 billion SunRail commuter rail project that will connect DeLand and DeBary to Orlando and Poinciana).

“Another problem they have is the cost of the project,” Mica said. When Florida first proposed the project 10 years ago, cost was pegged at $80 million. The cost Florida submitted in the first round of applications last year, for the same project? $260 million. “I asked the question,” Mica said, “how in the hell could it get from $80 million to that amount. They said that Amtrak, who was the major operator, said they’d be required to buy about $140 million in equipment for the project if they ran it.”

Assuming Florida lands the project this time, the state would have to come up with $52 million to fund it–and decide how much of that burden would be borne by communities along the line. There’s good and bad news in this. The state might have an incentive to add Bunnell as part of the cities served along the way, if it means spreading the cost around, and lessening costs for each individual town or county on the line. But adding stations also adds costs. And Bunnell alone could not shoulder cost-sharing. It would have to be a county-wide effort. So far, Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and the county have done an excellent job voicing their support for a train stop, and Palm Coast passed a formal resolution doing so. But none of those local governments have yet intimated that they’d put their money where their resolutions are, especially in economically strapped times (although some cities seem less strapped than others).

Meanwhile, Amtrak and the state transportation department have been holding public hearings on the proposed rail line in two rounds. It’s part of the state’s application process, which is to include updated ridership numbers and environmental impact studies. The first round ended March 26. It did not include Bunnell. Amtrak and the state are now claiming that they would jeopardize their application for federal money if they added Bunnell to the list, and that Bunnell’s train station could be built subsequent to the rail line resuming service.

That’s not how Bunnell sees it. “We feel it’s critical that we get included on this first round. The economic opportunities are irreplaceable,” says Judi Stetson, Bunnell’s director of grants and special projects and the city’s point person on the rail initiative. As a whole, the project is expected to create 2,100 jobs in three years of construction across the state, and 6,300 permanent jobs. (Stetson was aboard the ceremonial Amtrak train that whistled through Bunnell on May 1, rattling hopes for passenger service that hasn’t been down that way since 1968).

Stetson was on the conference call with Mica today, along with Bunnell City Manager Armando Martinez, the Florida Department of Transportation’s Nazih Haddad, who coordinates high-speed and intercity rail projects in Florida, and Joyce Rose, staff director of the powerful House transportation subcommittee. The call reflects Bunnell’s relentless efforts to convince the state that Flagler — no longer the rural afterthought on Florida’s east coast but an emerging urban center with its pull and identity — deserves its own stop.

Bunnell is doing its part. Monday evening the commission studied three options where a train station could be located. Their preferred choice is wooded and vacant land owned by LPO LLC on the east side of the train tracks, north of East Woodland Avenue and south of the State Road 100 overpass. The 41,000 square-foot property, listed at $899,000, would accommodate a 1,000-foot platform and a train station. It curves, but the Florida Eastern Corridor rail director of operation says that’s not an issue. But site selection is only the beginning. The city would have to hold public hearings and conduct environmental and ridership studies in tandem with the state. It isn’t clear how those requirements could fit in the very tight timing of the state’s application for federal funds, due in July.

And Mica himself may have some reservations about the cost, if ridership doesn’t provide a substantial offset. The line doesn’t have to be profitable. Most passenger rail lines aren’t. Last year Amtrak took in $2.35 billion in total revenue against $3.5 billion in expenses. The $1.49 billion in federal subsidies it received work out to almost $52 per ticket sold (the service had 28.7 million riders last year). Mica isn’t opposed to the subsidy, but he doesn’t want to add rail lines that unreasonably widen the per-passenger subsidy, either. So ridership is a premium on any new line.

Passengers on the prospective line could get from Jacksonville to Miami in six hours on trains traveling at a maximum speed of 90 mph. “I don’t think anybody ever thinks that the line would completely finally support itself,” Stetson said. But profitability isn’t the primary motive. “We need to be able to support better transportation throughout the state of Florida, and one of the major benefits of this particular line is that it truly will travel out to the entire east coast, so it truly will provide major connectivity.”

Mica is encouraging Bunnell: “They have a fighting chance,” he said. But Mica also knows the ways of federal appropriations. He wants numbers and data, and he hopes Bunnell and the state will be ready with both come application time.

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