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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Proposal to extend a passenger rail system from Orlando to Tampa gets a change

 Locator signs in front of a Brightline train
John Raoux
A sign post is seen in front of a Brightline rail car to celebrate the completion of the construction of the Brightline high speed rail on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in Orlando, Fla. The rail system now connects Miami to Orlando.

A Senate committee Tuesday revised a proposal that could help extend a private passenger-rail system from Orlando to Tampa.

A Senate committee Tuesday revised a proposal that could help extend a private passenger-rail system from Orlando to Tampa.

A bill (SB 1226) initially would have led to the Florida Department of Transportation setting aside a 44-foot-wide rail corridor in the Interstate 4 right-of-way “to extend to Tampa the existing passenger rail service currently terminating in Orlando.”

But Senate Transportation Chairman Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, made a change that removed that proposed directive to the transportation department.

Under the change, the Florida Rail Enterprise would be required to include among its duties the preservation of “future rail corridors and rights-of-way in coordination with the department’s planning of the state highway system.”

DiCeglie said concerns had been raised that putting in law a requirement about the I-4 right-of-way would “tie the hands” of the department. “They didn’t want to be essentially mandated,” DiCeglie said after the committee meeting. “They’ve got processes in places which clearly I’m comfortable with. They’re always aware of the potential, in this case, of the rail going from Orlando to Tampa.”

Also, the Senate and House have moved forward with budget proposals (SB 2500 and HB 5001) that don’t include lawmakers’ requests to provide $50 million for rail improvements in the Interstate 4 corridor. The Senate and House will take up the proposals Wednesday and negotiate a final spending plan in the coming weeks.

“There’s always next year,” DiCeglie said.

In September, the passenger-rail company Brightline completed a 170-mile, $6 billion project that connected its service to Orlando from South Florida, where stations have operated since 2018. Brightline has signaled that it wants to extend the service to the Tampa area.

Christine Kefauver, Brightline senior vice president of corporate development, told lawmakers in December that the company was “making tremendous strides” toward an Orlando-to-Tampa route.

DiCeglie’s bill must clear two more committees before it could reach the full Senate. The rail issue is included in a wide-ranging Senate transportation package. A final version will have to be negotiated with the House.

The House version of the bill (HB 1301) doesn’t include the rail proposal.

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