Is All Aboard Florida A Match For Jacksonville?

Quietly in late August, construction began on All Aboard Florida (AAF), a $2.5 billion passenger rail system that could eventually reach Jacksonville. The FEC eliminated passenger rail services between Jacksonville and Miami in 1968, during one of the most violet labor conflicts of the 20th century. While these days may be gone, what does appear to be back is Henry Morrison Flagler’s 19th century use of passenger rail along Florida’s East Coast as a means to enhance real estate development around railroad stations. Is it possible for Jacksonville to take advantage of the economic opportunity that could be headed its way?

Published November 19, 2014 in Transportation -

What is All Aboard Florida?

AAF is a “higher-speed” intercity passenger rail service being developed by Florida East Coast Industries that will connect Miami to Orlando in just under three hours. Designed to serve both residents and tourist, AAF will operate on 195 miles of existing FEC tracks from Miami to Cocoa, with 40 miles of new track between Cocoa and Orlando. New stations will be built at Orlando International Airport and the downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach.  

FEC believes that its passenger rail subsidiary will be popular with Floridians, business travelers, and tourists because it will serve as a cost and time efficient transportation alternative between Central and South Florida. Currently, close to 50 million trips are taken between Orlando and Miami annually. This trip takes 4 hours by car, 10 hours by train (Amtrak), and 45 minutes flying (high costs in air fare). Operating at speeds up to 125 mph and with limited stops, AAF anticipates it will be able to make this trip in 3 hours.

The project’s backers claim that AAF will promote the economy by improving mobility in the area and creating jobs. In addition, positives in the environment would include reducing carbon emissions and removing 3 million cars annually off Florida’s roadways. Featuring innovative technology, Wi-Fi and café bars, AAF’s ADA-compliant Siemens manufactured trains will connect these cities with hourly headways, which is something the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s (JTA) proposed commuter rail service won’t provide, assuming it becomes a reality, one or two decades from now.

What Makes AAF Different from any other Rail System?

One major reason that AAF is a big deal is because, if things work out, it would be the first successful passenger rail system that is privately owned, operated, and maintained since the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad ceased the Rio Grande Zephyr operations between Denver and Ogden, UT in 1983.  The $1.5 billion project is being funded from debt and equity, rather than federal or state grants, ongoing subsidies, and taxpayer money. In an economic climate where passenger rail typically operates at a deficit, this is considered revolutionary by many experts in the transportation industry.

Furthermore, unlike recently implemented passenger rail projects, this just may be your granddaddy’s railroad.  Dusting off the business plan Flagler used a century ago, to build the railroad and much of Florida, the AAF project ties passenger rail with transit-oriented real estate development.

A transit-oriented development (TOD) is a mixed-use residential and commercial area designed around transit stations to maximize access to public transit, encouraging longterm transit ridership. AAF plans to develop millions of square feet of commercial, office, and residential development around its downtown stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. Serving as a hub of intermodal connectivity, these developments will add shopping, dining, hotels and more in the heart of each city’s urban core.

An economic-projections study indicates that AAF will have significant economic benefits on the state. AAF is projected to have a six billion dollar positive impact on the state’s economy over the next eight to ten years. Moreover, AAF is expected to serve as a source of growth and prosperity for Florida and its citizens, creating over ten thousand jobs per year. In addition, AAF will add approximately three billion dollars in gross domestic production, two billion dollars in labor income and over six hundred million in tax revenue. AAF is also expected to boost the state’s production of goods and services to over five hundred million dollars a year for at least the first five years.

One major reason that AAF is moving forward, compared to other companies like it, is because AAF is private, rather than government, owned. Compared to companies such as Amtrak, AAF will be in intra-state rail line, rather than an inter-state one (which circumvents much of the Federal red tape involved in crossing state lines). This means that when AAF gets their trains up and operating, they will strictly be a Florida line. Additionally, AAF does not fall under the umbrella of fear, aversion, or lack of leadership, much like companies such as JTA have proved in the past.

Proposed MiamiCentral Station. Courtesy of All Aboard Florida.

The AAF stations will have plenty to offer, too. MiamiCentral, AAF’s downtown Miami station will be the flagship for the passenger rail operation. With its tracks elevated 50 feet above ground level, MiamiCentral will encompass approximately 3 million square feet on seven downtown blocks that had previously been used as surface parking lots. It will include a food market, shops, restaurants, offices, two new residential towers, and 800 affordable rental apartments for people who work in the city’s core. Adjacent to Miami-Dade Transit’s (MDT) Government Center Station, MiamiCentral will connect with existing Metrorail and Metromover transit systems, tying the system in with other areas of Miami-Dade County. MiamiCentral will generate a total economic impact of $1.3 billion between 2014 and 2021 for Miami-Dade County.

Proposed Fort Lauderdale Station. Courtesy of All Aboard Florida.

The Fort Lauderdale station will connect riders to the Sun Trolley, Broward County Transit system, and future streetcar and commuter rail lines. The 60,000 square foot station will include an elevated passenger lounge and parking facilities, while also generating more than $333 million in economic impact for Broward County through 2021.

Proposed West Palm Beach Station. Courtesy of All Aboard Florida.

The West Palm Beach station will stand at the historic center of a project designed to enhance Henry Flagler’s vision for Florida. The station, which will also cover sixty thousand square feet, will become a gateway into Palm Beach County, linking riders to nearby Tri-Rail and Amtrak stations. It’s anticipated that this development will create more than 1,200 jobs and $164 million in economic impact for Palm Beach County through 2021.

AAF’s proposed Orlando station will be located 11 miles south of downtown at Orlando International Airport, taking advantage of a major gateway to the region’s 50 million annual visitors. However, plans are underway to like AAF to Orlando’s urban core through an extension of the SunRail commuter rail system to AAF’s airport hub. Orlando’s proposed station will be a large, two-story structure, with the first level being the main transportation platform, and the second level being a waiting room. The waiting area will have Wi-Fi, televisions, conference rooms, and small cafes.

In addition, an October 2013 deal between AAF and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA) includes an 80-acre vehicle maintenance rail maintenance facility. In total, AAF is expected to bring $400 million in construction work to Central Florida.

The ambitious passenger rail project, in a state known for having high pedestrian and bicycle death rates and abysmal transit options, also has an ambitious start date. Initially announced in March 2012, the Miami to West Palm Beach segment is anticipated to be open for business in 2016. The Orlando segment is expected to come online in 2017.

Could AAF Be Coming to Jacksonville Next?

Passenger rail could be coming back to the old Jacksonville Terminal sooner than most expect.

Overall, AAF is anticipated to generate $6.4 billion in direct economic impact to Florida’s economy over the next eight years; $653 million in federal, state and local government tax revenue through 2021, and over 5,000 jobs on average per year after construction is completed through 2021. Those numbers have Tampa’s leaders practically begging AAF to come to their region. According to a 2013 Tampa Tribune article, local officials were worried that a second phase of the project could bypass their city for an Orlando-Jacksonville route.

“I’ve heard about Jacksonville from many different sources, one of the latest during talks at a local transportation subcommittee meeting”, claimed Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe in the article. “I was on a call last week where it was becoming clear we would not be next for All Aboard Florida …if only through the grapevine….we must be poised and prepared and do everything possible to demonstrate that we are a massive market and a very important destination.”  Should Tampa be concerned? Perhaps. Especially, after seeing two local sales tax referendums to fund improved transit in the Bay area, go down in flames at the ballot box.

Since the project’s March 2012 announcement, FEC has mentioned that future extensions could lead to the rail service being expanded to Jacksonville and Tampa.  While working deals to get access to Tampa appear to be daunting, an extension to Jacksonville makes sense, assuming the initial Miami-Orlando segment is successful of course. Due to the fact that FEC already owns the track and Right-of-Way between Jacksonville and Miami, major initial costs for such an intercity passenger rail service are basically being covered with the current implementation of the Miami-Orlando route. In addition, a connection between Florida’s largest east coast cities would serve a corridor that Amtrak has long indicated would be one of the few intercity corridors in the country to break even at the fare box. Last, if AAF’s initiative is to mix transit infrastructure with supportive land development, the opportunity doesn’t get any larger than Jacksonville’s historic terminal and the undeveloped blocks surrounding it.

Just south of Northeast Florida, there’s another east coast city looking to possibly take a piece of AAF’s pie. In an interview with Marc Bernier of WNDB, Volusia County District 2 Councilman Josh Wagner said he wants to see a study done on the possible impact of an AAF train stop in Daytona Beach. During the interview, Wagner believes that AAF could be a potential lucrative game-changer for Daytona Beach “because it would likely bring in more tourists than SunRail, which is mainly designed to be a commuter rail system for people who work in downtown Orlando.”

If this isn’t enough to raise the eyebrows of a Jacksonville politician or downtown advocate, on May 29, 2014, AAF filed court documents for a new company, AAF Jacksonville Segment, LLC. On June 11, 2014, the new company penned an agreement with AAF that gives it the easement rights to shuttle passengers on FEC’s tracks between Jacksonville and Cocoa.

Bringing AAF to Jacksonville would, all around, be a positive experience. Bringing AAF to Jacksonville would first and foremost, create local jobs. Just as importantly, the transit oriented development that could come with it could be a game changer for a downtown and adjacent inner city neighborhoods that have struggled to right themselves since the 1960s.

Many of the placemaking features at Denver's recently restored Union Station could find their way to Jacksonville's terminal with proper coordination and planning.

When and if AAF comes to Jacksonville is anybody’s guess at the moment. When questioned about the agreement for a potential Jacksonville extension, an AAF spokesman responded by saying, “we are soley focused on getting the Orlando-to-Miami service operational. Once the Orlando-to-Miami service is operational, extensive ridership analysis and research will be conducted to determine the viability of future extensions and stations.”

This news should immediately clarify two things to Jacksonville’s urban community.  If and when improvements in fixed rail transit come to town, it will probably be AAF before commuter rail, streetcar, or added Amtrak services. Despite being discussed and debated for years, all lack the necessary commitment or funding necessary to move forward anytime soon.  However, the major problem that keeps these projects on the drawing board, appears to be the one AAF has already worked out.

Second, if Jacksonville truly wants such a service to tie its urban core with other major Florida cities, now is the time to improve our local mass transit system, even if finding extra money is like attempting to squeeze blood out of a turnip.

Further investment in the Skyway, local bus system, and other transit modes will be needed for an intercity rail system like AAF to truly be successful in Northeast Florida.

At a recent Urban Land Institute (ULI) meeting, Husein Cumber, executive vice president of Corporate Development for FEC, mentioned that Jacksonville’s poor transit system is one of the missing puzzle pieces holding back AAF from coming to town.

“The initiative is first targeting cities that have local routes in place to take riders from high-speed rail stations to their final destinations. Orlando is one such city. It has been investing in its public transportation system for decades. To compete, Jacksonville would have to have routes in place so a rider could get from a high-speed rail station to places like EverBank Field for a game, to the airport, San Marco or Jacksonville Beach.  If a person can’t easily get off our system and move to their end destination, when we do our ridership studies, the numbers are not going to come out as strongly.”

Jacksonville, you’re now on the clock.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP and Kristen Pickrell.


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