The prospects of high-speed rail in Florida anytime soon died last year when Gov. Rick Scott turned down $2.4 billion in federal money.
Now the question is whether private enterprise can bring passenger rail throughout much of the state, including, eventually, Tampa.
If Gov. Rick Scott's rejection of $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail money caught some by surprise, so did a proposal revealed eight months ago for privately owned, operated and financed passenger trains between Orlando and Miami and maybe, eventually, Tampa.
With relatively little public fanfare in March, Florida East Coast Industries Inc., a Coral Gables real estate and transportation company, unveiled a conventional passenger train concept that continues to gain momentum.
The project, called All Aboard Florida, remains on schedule to begin service in late 2014. The hope is to extend connections to Tampa and Jacksonville once the original route pays off, company executives said in interviews this week.
"Obviously this is a project with many moving parts," said Husein Cumber, executive vice president of corporate development for Florida East Coast Industries.
So far, the group has completed a ridership study and an environmental assessment and laid out plans for stations in Miami, West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. A fourth station is planned for Orlando International Airport.
Perhaps more importantly, the group hired Gene Skoropowski, who has managed successful passenger rail projects in a half-dozen major cities.
Skoropowski was one of the main movers behind California's Capitol Corridor passenger rail service that Amtrak operates from east of Sacramento to Oakland and San Jose. That operation is perhaps the most similar U.S. service to the planned All Aboard Florida route.
"All Aboard Florida is a historic concept," said Ed Turanchik, a longtime Florida rail advocate and Tampa lawyer. "It will be Florida's best hope for improving transportation."
The business model is fairly simple and emphasizes the financial opportunities that come from development that arises near rail stations. That's a model that has been proven successful since the days of Henry Flagler's real estate and railroad investments in Florida.
The $1 billion in private investment the Fortress Group must raise for the rail plan will depend on passenger fares from an estimated 50 million travelers drive between Orlando and Miami each year and real estate investments near the new passenger stations.
"This will be a complete transformation in the way people look at passenger rail systems throughout the county," Cumber said. "We have not asked for any operating subsides nor grant money."
The new trains will operate along 200 miles of existing Florida East Coast Railway freight tracks between Miami and Cocoa at speeds up to 110 mph. That's well below the 180 mph Florida's proposed high-speed rail would have achieved.
Another 30 miles of track must be laid along a corridor between Cocoa and Orlando International Airport, pending a right of way agreement along the BeachLine Expressway with the Florida Department of Transportation.
The train will cut an hour off the four-hour Miami-Orlando drive time. Fares have not been determined.
Train service is envisioned hourly, with up to 19 daily round trips. The trains will be conventional units, with two locomotives and seven to nine passenger cars.
"This is an exciting project," said Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad in a recent interview at a Tribune editorial board meeting.
"Unlike the high-speed rail project, there are no government costs," he said, acknowledging details must be worked out on the Orlando-Cocoa right of way agreement.
Al Pina, a planner who chairs Urban Redevelopment Solutions of Tampa, said the conventional rail proposal could eventually lead to a stronger appetite for high-speed rail in Florida. "I would have chosen high-speed rail first, but this plan should work well for Florida."