Florida High Speed Rail - The Conservative Way

November 19, 2010 152 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Jacksonville stands at the door to regain its leadership position as the railroad gateway to Florida. Within the last week we have heard a new governor suggest he would never support rail, a FDOT official that thinks our train station should be at the airport, a report that the City told Amtrak the concourse at Jacksonville Terminal was "an old baggage tunnel," and that a certain white haired JTA planner has no intention of allowing selective condensing of the Jacksonville Transportation Center plan.

The ignorance of certain political leaders is scary when they address this issue. Likewise the "We have/need highways," "Amtrak tickets are subsidized," "Where are the private investors," "We love our cars too much," or the "I paid taxes in New Jersey my entire working life so I'll be damned if I'll pay for a sidewalk in Florida," crowds are locked into Neanderthal thinking.

First, we already have rail. Rail is vital. Rail is cheaper then building highways and has 2.5 times the capacity. Rail also has certain travel advantages over airlines, city center to city center, ability to connect population centers with smaller towns, fuel savings, air quality, etc. Rail likewise has advantages over highways.  Highways promote sprawl while rail is more economical, faster, comfortable and has greater capacity. Most importantly, it promotes dense, walkable, sustainable and proven urban growth. The current national average return on new rail investment, even if NOBODY rides, is $14 for every dollar invested.

"On Tuesday, Subsidy Scope, a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trust, reported that Amtrak, America's passenger rail company, "lost" an average of $38 per passenger. Citing a new metric for train depreciation, the report suggested that the train line has been less than transparent in its estimation of its own profitability.

"While it is interesting that the government spends an average of $38 on each Amtrak passenger, this isn't really news. Over a year ago, in fact, Amtrak president Alex Kummant stated that each passenger on the train line represents a public capital expenditure of approximately $40, and similar figures have been bandied about for years. In fact, the only truly surprising thing is that some conservative think tanks and advocacy organizations continue to criticize the corporation for its failure to turn a profit. The underlying message seems to be that Amtrak is a financial failure, and that if rail travel were privatized, it would somehow be able to make a profit.

"The truth is that Amtrak is not designed to make money; rather, it is designed to provide a public service. The same could be said of the rest of America's transportation network: none of the country's transportation systems generate profit or pay for themselves.  For example, the airlines rely on a patchwork of municipal, state, and federal funding to finance the cost of airports. Meanwhile, federal funds pay for airport security and taxes pay for the FAA. Many pilots are trained by the military and much of the avionics used in private aircraft is developed under military contract. If these costs were transferred to airline passengers, the price of a plane ticket would be prohibitive.

Roads are subsidized by a plethora of tax payer financed sources to make it feasible for people to drive and sit in congestion.

Ever think about America's roads? The highway trust fund, which is ostensibly funded by gas taxes, still receives money from Congress, while the various agencies that oversee its administration and police its passengers are all funded by taxes. Again, if these costs were transferred to individual travelers, few people could afford to drive.

"Taken on a passenger-by-passenger basis, trains cost taxpayers far less than cars, planes, motorcycles or rickshaws. The big difference, as National Corridor Initiative president and CEO James P. RePass noted in a recent interview, is that "Subsidies for airlines and highways are far less obvious than Amtrak's single line item."

A rendering of Florida High Speed Rail's only proposed walkable urban station in downtown Tampa.

So what is wrong with the Florida High Speed Rail plan, and so right about Orlando and Jacksonville's commuter rail plan or the Florida East Coast plans? You'll recall that I stated that rail also has certain travel advantages over airlines, city center to city center and the ability to connect population centers with smaller towns, something the Orlando - Tampa plan ignores. If ridership is lower then projected as I predict, then where are the fuel savings? The advantages over highways evaporate if rail itself promotes sprawl and how could it miss when Interstate 4 is located a considerable undeveloped distance north of the communities between Orlando and Tampa. While rail is more economical, and faster, it will be neither if its finances run backward faster then the trains themselves. Even capacity might be questioned if the entire line is squeezed in the median of freeways while comfort might vanish if it is built on elevated structures and settling in our sink hole prone state causes galloping. Most important how does rail promote dense, walkable, sustainable, proven urban growth when it misses the urban cores and punches through none of the population centers in between.

The Florida High Speed Rail route (light blue) between Tampa and Orlando misses most of Central Florida's population centers.

So HIGH SPEED RAIL for Florida? In my professional opinion the short answer is NO. The reason is that the Florida plan is fatally flawed, as I have pointed out rail's advantages are its connectivity, and a route from Orlando's inconveniently located airport, to an amusement park, to a parking garage north of downtown Tampa misses the mark. Nobody lives along Interstate 4 with the population of this corridor located three to nine miles south.  This project will do nothing for the residents of growing communities like Lakeland, Brandon, Deland, Sanford, Winter Park, Kissimmee, Winter Haven and Plant City. In fact, from perhaps 75% of the Orlando area, the 35-55 minute trek to the airport plus parking and wait time will more then kill any speed advantage over the private automobile - and if I drive I won't have to rent a car in Tampa.

The Pacific Surfliner is a 350-mile Amtrak corridor passenger service serving Southern California between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. With 2.89 million passengers in fiscal year 2008, this is Amtrak's most heavily traveled service outside of the Northeast Corridor, covering 59.1% of its operating expenses through ticket sales.

Burbank Airport Station image by Red Granite at www.flickr.com.

Florida has abandoned rail travel at a state government level for some 50 years, and a magic flying train will not be the quick fix in the game of catch up. We may only get one shot at this and we can't afford to blow it for the entire country. Where are our corridor trains? Where is our intra-state Amtrak network?  How have we rebuilt ridership? Where is our demand? When you hear the word train do you think airport? Where is our connectivity? Can I get a day train to Ocala, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Ft. Myers or Sarasota? How about an overnight between Jacksonville and Pensacola or Miami first? Why not conventional intercity rail connections to Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago,  Memphis or New Orleans? Shouldn't we concentrate on fixing what we have lost and rebuilding the patronage before we reinvent the wheel?

An Amtrak Florida corridor service could be established on existing rail lines providing better service to millions of more Florida residents than the current High Speed Rail plan for a fraction of the costs.

I'm not against High Speed Rail, but I think the approach the State is taking over on the Florida East Coast, where high(er) speed rail is being pursued is the right approach. City center to city center, connecting smaller cities, increasing headways, speeding up schedules, improving stations, track, equipment and signaling.  We should grow our way to success which won't be measured in profit, rather it will be measured in economic terms with a booming transit oriented development trend. While high speed rail, airplanes or new highway lanes will never solve our congestion pains, properly planned and integrated together they can provide choices that could mean you'll never have to sit in traffic again.

While Governor elect Rick Scott and long time friend Representative John Mica's broad axe for all rail, and for Amtrak respectively, may not be an acceptable action, Florida's HSR plan certainly needs some precision surgical correction. Even the nation's first privately operated or railroad operated passenger train network is not out of the question if the pot could be sweetened with tax breaks and credits. We can blindly kill it all, or plan to succeed and work our plan.  

Railroad stations at the airport or the return of the grand old lady of downtown, Jacksonville Terminal?  Really Florida, the choice is up to you.

Editorial by Robert W. Mann