Dec. 27--Virgin Trains was granted another extension for negotiations over locating railroad track along public roads between Orlando and Tampa but the state "cannot indefinitely offer a lease opportunity in the Interstate 4 corridor," transportation officials said.
Florida Department of Transportation and Central Florida Expressway Authority officials agreed this week to another 90 days of talks with Virgin Trains USA, formerly Brightline, over leasing track space. Current talks lapse Jan. 1 and the extension is to run through March 31.
"We've made great progress over the past year working with multiple agencies along the corridor in trying to determine an exact alignment that fits into other expansion projects," said Ben Porritt, Virgin senior vice president for corporate affairs, when asked why negotiations have been prolonged.
The privately owned and financed Virgin is building higher-speed rail from South Florida to Orlando International Airport, a $4 billion, 160-mile project set for completion in 2021.
Last year, state and local road agencies entered into talks with Virgin over a establishing a nearly 80-mile rail corridor from the airport to a station in Tampa.
An agreement letter signed this week by the Florida Department of Transportation, Central Florida Expressway Authority and Virgin Trains, approving another 90 days of talks, describes Virgin's route options as highly complex.
Virgin rail would extend west from the airport along Orlando Utilities Commission rail corridor used by coal trains. It would intersect and follow track now used by the region's SunRail commuter trains.
From the SunRail corridor, Virgin track would follow the expressway authority's State Road 417 to International Drive or I-4.
Separately, Virgin Trains is negotiating with Walt Disney Co. over putting a station on or near theme-park property.
From the theme-park area, Virgin Trains would follow I-4 to Tampa. The I-4 corridor has long been considered by the state as a potential route for high-speed, intercity rail service.
Along with multiple challenges to work through, the Florida Department of Transportation reminded Virgin Trains of significant reconstruction of I-4 to come in the Orlando and Tampa areas.
Florida Department of Transportation "projects, including the I-4 Beyond the Ultimate and Tampa Bay Next projects, will significantly limit the availability of department right-of-way for Virgin Trains' project," states the 90-day extension letter.
"The department is happy to continue to provide you [Virgin] with information regarding the department's planned projects for the Interstate 4 corridor, however the department needs to understand exactly what property Virgin Trains desires to lease," states the letter, written by Tom Byron, DOT's assistant secretary for strategic development.
"The department cannot indefinitely offer a lease opportunity in the Interstate 4 corridor, one of the busiest corridors in the state, for a project with uncertain and unspecified plans and impacts on department projects, and unknown solutions to those impacts," the letter concludes.
Central Florida Expressway Authority officials also have expressed desire for a better understanding of Virgin's intentions.
"We have a lot of open questions," member Jay Madara said.
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