Long-discussed plans for returning passenger rail service to Florida's East Coast got new life from an Amtrak report that ranks the dormant West Palm Beach-Jacksonville segment as "the most promising initiative for expansion."
Passenger service on the 350-mile coastal stretch was abandoned in 1968. Amtrak trains currently run between Miami and West Palm Beach, then connect with Jacksonville via an inland route through Orlando.
Florida East Coast Railway and local communities have been investigating a return to passenger service for several years, and this week's Amtrak report was hailed as a significant step.
This is great news and reinforces what we know about the project. Passenger service on the FEC corridor will create economic development opportunities from Jacksonville to Miami -- boosting tourism, helping the cruise ship industry, and directly benefiting key destinations like Daytonas International Speedway," said Doug Smith, a Martin County commissioner.
"It will also help the work force to migrate along the coast, helping regional businesses expand and become more successful," Smith said.
But there's still a long way to go before the concept can become reality.
Amtrak's preliminary analyses suggest splitting the current Silver Star line at Jacksonville and operating a separate section of the train to Miami via the FEC to supplement the Silver Star's current Jacksonville-Orlando/Tampa-Miami service.
Operating a section of the Silver Star over the FEC tracks is projected to attract more than 100,000 new riders and increase revenues by $7.9 million annually.
"Since projected revenues would slightly exceed the anticipated additional operating costs, the route's financial performance would improve as well," the Amtrak report stated.
But running a section of the Silver Star over the FEC tracks is not included in the plan "because it cannot be implemented at this time," the report added.
The study cautioned that "significant capital funding would be required for rail infrastructure upgrades on the FEC route, including additional equipment,
mobilization costs, and other necessary investments."
"In addition, Florida DOT, which owns the rail line between West Palm Beach and Miami, over which additional service routed via FEC would operate, is prohibited by Florida law from entering into the liability apportionment arrangements that Amtrak has with nearly all of its host railroads.
"Initiation of additional Amtrak service over FDOT-owned lines would subject Amtrak to additional unacceptable liability exposure," the study concluded.
The state's current capital budget includes funding for investments to restore passenger rail service on the FEC route. The state has also committed to working with Amtrak to secure enactment of an amendment to Florida law that would allow FDOT to enter into a liability apportionment agreement with Amtrak.
FEC spokesman Husein Cumber said the railway company "looks forward to discussing the analysis with Amtrak, FDOT and the local communities, and identifying key next steps to move the project forward."
"We recognize the desire of residents to have passenger rail service on the FEC," Cumber said.
Two years ago, a consortium of eight East Coast cities sought a $268 million federal grant to resurrect the line built by turn-of-the-century industrialist Henry Flagler.
Under the initial plan, the federal funds (on an 80-20 match with the state) would have purchased new Amtrak equipment after $40 million was spent to link the TriRail and Amtrak routes in West Palm Beach and upgrade the Miami connection center.
The city of Jacksonville says it also needs $40 million to upgrade FEC tracks there.
Though funding is evermore problematic in Tallahassee and Washington, coastal communities continue to view Amtrak service as a powerful economic-development engine for the short- and long-term.
"It will implement redevelopment plans, promote 'stay-cations,' increase local spending and provide immediate construction jobs," said Kathy Meehan, vice mayor of Melbourne and a member of Melbourne Main Street.
"We need this economic development investment now, and Amtraks announcement gives us a chance to move forward immediately.
Nancy Sikes-Kline, a St. Augustine city commissioner, recalled that Flagler brought the first train into that historic city in the late 1800s.
"Were more than ready for it to return," she said. "We have more than 6 million annual visitors and as we near our 450th anniversary celebration, we expect that number to grow substantially."
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.