Unfortunately, its headed to a town about two hours to the South called Orlando. Nevertheless, the success of this rail line in the land of Mickey will impact the future of Jacksonville more than we think. In the meantime, the planning of this commuter rail line provides a nearby blueprint for our transporation leaders follow.
Phase one, will run from Deland (Southern Volusia County) to Orlando's current Amtrak station, just south of downtown. Phase two will continue the line south into Poinciana (Osceola County). In the future, rail could eventually link the Orlando line to Jacksonville. When will we put the current Bus Rapid Transit system plan on ice and step on board with the rest of America regarding transit planning?
In total, the Orlando system will cover 61 miles, when all phases are completed along CSX's existing freight tracks. There are 10 stations planned for phase one and 16 proposed at build-out. Did we mention that CSX is headquartered in Jacksonville? It's well known that railroad companies can be difficult to deal with during track usage negotiations, but if you can't work with your neighbor, then who can you work with?
Roads and buses are nice, but at some point you need an alternative transportation source that will allow residents to access several areas of town without being forced to participate in the clogging of local roads. That is where commuter rail comes in.
Orlando's transportation planners consider this commuter rail line as the introduction of rail connections throughout the Central Florida region. When operational, commuter rail is expected to move as many people as one-lane of Interstate 4 during peak travel times.
The smartest thing about investing in commuter rail is taking advantage the relatively cheap start up costs compared to road construction and other forms of mass transit. For example, JTA's 29-mile BRT system was estimated in 2004 to cost over $20 million per mile, topping the $600 million dollar mark. Typical commuter rail systems, similar in length can cost less than one-tenth the price of JTA's BRT system. In addition, they spur additional infill development, increasing the city's tax roll on land adjacent to stations. BRT does not because the routes are not fixed.
Urban "Connectivity" is the major benefit of commuter rail. Imagine living in Jacksonville in five to ten years from now, and having the CHOICE of hopping on a train in Historic St. Augustine, stroll around San Marco Square, tour downtown for a few hours and catch a flight out of JIA, all without having to touch a car or bus. There's only one type of transit that can provide residents with that choice for an affordable price. It's called commuter rail.
Commuter rail is not the end all solution to regional traffic problems. In Orlando, it is a start to what will eventually be a regional wide transit system of commuter rail, light rail, and express bus routes working together to move riders around town. Locally, we can start to plan for the same, by revising the planned Bus Rapid Transit system to take advantage of local rail routes instead of wasting millions to build parallel routes beside them.
One thing we do know is that, barring an unpredictable disaster, growth in Florida will not be coming to an end anytime soon. Sooner or later, we will be forced to implement rail, because we've grown to a point where additional road construction only makes traffic congestion worse.
The funding for commuter rail comes from a variety of sources. Orlando's local share will come from four Central Florida counties pitching in together. Considering commuter rail is already much less expensive when compared to highway construction, imagine the reduction of cost for each county if Duval, St. Johns, Clay, and Nassau jointly funded a project.
Because the infrastructure is already in place, it doesn't take long to get commuter rail up and running. Orlando's commuter rail story began in 2002, after an earlier light rail plan failed and the system is expected to open to the public as early as 2009. By comparison, Jacksonville's Bus Rapid Transit sytem won't be operational until 2025, at the earliest. Imagine what traffic on streets like Blanding, JTB, and Southside will be like in 20 years. The problem is compounded by the fact that the planned BRT lines won't even address their congestion issues.
Our peers are waking up and seeing the light. Now its our turn, before it is too late and too expensive.