FL: Brightline high-speed rail to Tampa? City officials discuss what’s next

May 9, 2024
Station locations along the route have yet to be announced. Speculation points to a building owned by Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City as a frontrunner for the Tampa terminus.

TAMPA — On a Wednesday morning last month, a group of senior city staff and business leaders huddled with Mayor Jane Castor to discuss plans connecting Tampa and Orlando with high-speed rail.

The meeting came about six weeks after Florida lawmakers decided not to include a requested $50 million to spur rail expansion along Interstate 4. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis later said at a news conference that taxpayers wouldn’t be “on the hook” to pay for construction by private operator Brightline.

Castor wanted an update on what’s next.

“I’m excited by the progress that’s being made to bring Brightline to Tampa,” she later said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “The stakeholders involved are committed to making this route a reality and to overcoming any challenges presented by an infrastructure project of this scale.”

Among the attendees of the mid-April meeting, a familiar face: Bob Buckhorn, the two-term former Tampa mayor and Castor’s predecessor.

Bringing high-speed rail to Tampa is a topic “near and dear to his heart,” he recently told the Times, bemoaning the fact that more than a decade ago then-Gov. Rick Scott rejected over $2 billion in federal funding from the Obama administration to connect Tampa and Orlando by rail.

“Now, we’re close to getting it done,” he said, describing the April meeting as “informational.”

Buckhorn, who left office in 2019, is a vice president at public affairs group Shumaker Advisors Florida and accompanied Brightline leadership to the meeting.

Brightline is Shumaker’s client, Buckhorn said. The firm handles public affairs and communications for the train operator, he said.

“It’s pretty exciting. I wasn’t sure I was going to live to see this, but I’m confident now that it’s going to happen,” he said. “But it’s going to take time. It’s a big, big, expensive project.”

Station locations along the route have yet to be announced. Speculation points to a building owned by Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City as a frontrunner for the Tampa terminus.

Brightline declined to comment on that matter and the college didn’t return a call from the Times.

“We have an open dialogue with Tampa area leadership (and around the state) and Tampa is a major part of our immediate expansion plans,” a Brightline spokesperson said in a written statement to the Times.

Meeting attendees have otherwise been mum on discussion details.

Brightline became the nation’s first private passenger rail to launch in a century when it started its 67-mile service between Miami and West Palm Beach in 2018. It launched with private backing and plans to develop commercial and residential hubs around its stations.

Service was extended to Orlando last year with much fanfare.

In November, Buckhorn and Castor both rode the connection from Miami to Orlando alongside dozens of other public and private sector leaders from the city and Hillsborough County.

Looking out the window as the train zoomed north through Central Florida farmland at up to 125 mph, Castor wasn’t jealous, she said. But the experience did affirm that “Tampa needed this yesterday.”

She previously told the Times she expects the city to accommodate Brightline by the end of the decade.

The planned Tampa extension is expected to include stops at the Orange County Convention Center and South International Drive, according to Brightline’s November report to bondholders.

Frequent riders of the existing South Florida route will soon experience some sticker shock. Right now commuters can buy 40 one-way tickets for $399 to all destinations between West Palm Beach and Miami. Beginning June 1, Brightline will offer packages of just 10 tickets, and are offering the first 10 for free. But after that, the cost of 40 tickets will more than triple to $1,400.

“It has become increasingly difficult to accommodate all Guests as peak trains are reaching capacity,” the company wrote on its website.

Last year, Tampa obtained a federal grant to launch an office dedicated to accelerating big transit projects. Among the priorities is transforming the area around what would be Brightline’s Tampa station “into an urban, walkable neighborhood,” according to the city’s grant application. The $25 million project is estimated to take three years.

During the most recent state legislative session, Rep. Karen Gonzalez Pittman and Sen. Jay Collins, both Republicans, asked for the $50 million to spur rail expansion between Orlando and Tampa along Interstate 4. The money, ultimately not included in the budget, would have been spent alongside a larger $2.4 billion road construction project that will add more than 14 miles of tolled express lanes from west of U.S. 27 in Polk County to east of State Road 536 in Orange County.

Gonzalez Pittman and Collins wrote in their requests that the Florida Department of Transportation — which would have been the direct beneficiary of the funds — should incorporate “a modest scope of additional structure work” into that road project to allow for the rail.

For the time being, those traveling from Orlando to Tampa have few options but to keep their fingers crossed that the interstate isn’t clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

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