Florida passenger rail would make West Palm Beach-Orlando commute in less than two hours

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Backers of a proposed $1 billion passenger rail service linking Miami and Orlando say they are on track to start carrying folks by 2014 — and in the last two weeks they've named two firms to plan a West Palm Beach station, among others.

Projected travel time between West Palm Beach and Orlando: one hour and 45 minutes.

That's about an hour shorter than driving, and it's one feature that All Aboard Florida hopes will help make its privately funded 10-figure gamble pay off.

Strictly speaking, the service is not pitched as "high-speed" rail but will travel up to 110 mph and include WiFi service, food and beverages. Consumer pricing has not been set, but one goal during planning has been to be competitive with 55-cents-a-mile driving costs — which would work out to about $95 for West Palm Beach to Orlando.

"I think it can't help but benefit Palm Beach County," said state Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, who has met with project officials. "I'm excited — it will be two hours from West Palm Beach to Orlando. It's a bonus for us to be part of this rail line."

The location of the West Palm Beach station has not been announced, though Berman said she understood an early thought is to put it east of the Kravis Center on Okeechobee Boulevard. Project spokeswoman Susan Wiles called that "speculation at this point." The new passenger service would be offered along the Florida East Coast rail line, which has long carried freight several blocks east of tracks that Tri-Rail and other passenger services use.

The project would double-track some parts of the line that are not already configured that way, and add a stretch from Cocoa Beach to Orlando. It is being developed by railway owner Florida East Coast Industries Inc., which says the new project will be the country's only privately funded passenger service between major cities.

The West Palm Beach-to-Miami leg of the journey would offer less time advantage compared with driving — a projected one hour and 15 minutes. That's because trains would have to slow down more often for road crossings in a more congested area of the state, officials said.

On July 30, All Aboard Florida named New York-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP as lead architect and planner to develop concepts for stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando. Florida‐based Zyscovich Architects has been tapped as associate architect and planner.

The planners "intend to deliver landmarks that will enrich our neighborhood for years to come," said Vincent Signorello, president of Florida East Coast Industries.

The firms have started immediately on the work, he said.

The project intends to lure tourists and those traveling on business as well as residents getting out for leisure within the state, potentially taking 3 million cars off the road.

The planned service goes to Orlando's airport, not directly to a theme park, so day-trippers to Disney might have to catch another transportation link such as a bus at the end of the trip.

Previous rail projects have created high hopes before, only to lead to disappointment. One high-speed rail project fizzled after Gov. Rick Scott said the state could not afford it.

All Aboard Florida says it is not relying on government money and believes there is rider demand to support the plan.

As many as 50 million travelers a year could take advantage of the service between South Florida and Orlando, officials calculate. Future legs could link to Tampa and Jacksonville as well.

The project is expected to create 6,000 construction jobs in the state. Officials hope to start construction in early 2013.

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