INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – Time is of the essence for state and Amtrak officials working to bring passenger rail service back to Florida’s east coast, Vero Beach and county residents learned at a special workshop Thursday evening.
“We have one unique opportunity now,” said Florida Department of Transportation project manager Gregor Senger. He said if the agencies miss their July-August deadline to apply for federal funding, the project “probably won’t happen.”
Officials are quickly wrapping up public workshops along the coast and completing the necessary environmental study within the next four to six weeks before filing the application.
Despite the tight timeline, officials said Thursday they are optimistic that the project will be approved and funded.
In 2002, the state, Amtrak and Florida East Coast Railway applied for federal dollars for the passenger rail project but just missed the cut, according to Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council’s Kim Delaney.
“It wasn’t quite ripe enough,” she said, explaining that the studies had to be completed and public workshops held before it could be deemed “shovel ready.”
Part of the study will address the impact to the surrounding area, especially on historic structures and public spaces.
Tawny Olore, of CH2M Hill – a consulting firm – told the audience of about three-dozen that the impacts appear to be minimal.
Where the Indian River County Amtrak station would be located remains to be determined, though three sites have been identified. Later today, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Vero Beach Community Center, the public is invited to test out on paper the three locations and provide input on where the station should be.
Those locations include the Historic Diesel Plant south of 19th Place, the Vero Beach Community Center just south of 23rd Street, and the Historic Train Station a block north of the center.
Delaney said that of the eight new proposed stations along the east coast, Vero Beach is the only one that has the potential for using its historic train station as a site.
It was the location used as a stop earlier this month when Amtrak sent an inspection train along the FEC corridor.
“It was nice to see a train after 42 years,” longtime Vero Beach resident and train enthusiast Haynes McDaniel said of the Amtrak train stopping in Vero Beach a few weeks ago.
The last train he rode on, he told the audience, was a 25-car East Coast Champion in the early 1960s. He moved to Vero Beach in 1961 and recalled five trains stopping daily in town.
“I think we all want to ride some trains,” McDaniel said, and added that it this could present an opportunity for Greyhound Bus service, too.
Delaney added that there is no other proposed project currently in the country with as much documented support from various governments, governmental agencies, public groups and individuals.
The Florida Department of Transportation has submitted a $268 million grant request to the federal government for funds that would be used to get passenger rail going again between Miami and Jacksonville. The 350-mile ride between the two cities would take less than seven hours by rail.
According to FDOT, if awarded, the rail project would create 2,100 jobs and take three years to complete.
Officials plan to have a stop in Ft. Pierce and another in Melbourne, with Vero Beach between them.
If successful, Delaney said it would possible for other towns along the route – including Sebastian – to get a train stop. Express service could also be possibility between nearby cities.
The first phase, however, consists of plans for four trains – two northbound and two southbound.
“We hope to make it happen,” Amtrak representative Mike Latiff said.
New stations Amtrak wants:
Existing stations to tie into:
West Palm Beach
Expected Amtrak service:
Connect Florida East Coast and CSW railways in West Palm Beach
2 trains running northbound and southbound – could grow to 4 or 6 trains daily
Trip between Miami and Jacksonville to take 6 hours
Amtrak Passenger Rail at a Glance:
Total Est. Cost: $268 million – Federal stimulus
Est. Cost/Mile: $750,000
No. Stops: 15
Est. Jobs Created: 2,100
Est. Project Construction: 3 years
Est. Annual Ridership: 175,000-plus