Rail in Florida Advances; Charlotte Lacks Tax Revenue

Sun Rail Map» Commuter rail in Orlando picks up support from Governor and Legislature… will funding follow?

Florida Governor Charlie Crist (R) has come out in favor of the central Florida Sun Rail commuter system. The Sun Rail project, which would be focused around Orlando, would provide commuter rail along a 61-mile stretch of the state, from Deland to Poinciana, via DeBary, Winter Park, Orlando, and Kissimmee. The trains would run on a freight corridor purchased from CSX. The first phase of the $600 million program would link DeBary with Orlando and is expected to carry about 7,400 riders a day by 2030.

The support of Mr. Crist means that the project is more likely to make it through Florida’s state legislature, which put the brakes on the project last year. The govenror seems to have been convinced by the project’s promises of economic development along the line.

The move in favor of commuter rail in Orlando comes at the same time as the legislature has become more and more vocal in its support of transit projects in Jacksonville and in Tampa. The three projects together would create an entire system, running continuously along almost the entire distance from Jacksonville to Tampa. But the projects all need significant monetary backing from the state government to get going.

One problem for Floridians, though: the state’s citizens, according to a recent poll, are against the idea of the state legislature paying the CSX tracks and then for the renovation of the rails by a margin of 61 to 25. I wonder, though, how much of that opposition has to do with the poll’s rather questionable questions, and whether opposition will deminish now that very popular Governor Crist has come out in support of the project.

» Charlotte’s sales tax for transit slowing down

For transit funding, Charlotte has relied on a 1/2-cent sales tax since 1998, when the measure was passed in a referendum by county voters. The sales tax was reaffirmed overwhelmingly in a highly contentious 2007 vote just before the city’s first light rail line began operating. But that tax, which was intended to fund the city’s ambitious LYNX rapid transit program, is not meeting expectations as a result of the economic crisis. During the next ten years, the tax will produce $252 million less for transit than had been expected. This is the same situation currently facing Denver.

In response, Charlotte has no intention of asking in the short-term for another sales tax increase, à la Denver, nor will it increase fares until next year at the earliest, but it will begin reducing service on bus and rail lines beginning in March. A more dramatic consequence of the reduction in revenue is likely to be the postponement of construction on some of the city’s proposed new transit lines. $250 million is roughly equivalent to the one-fourth share the city was expected to pay for the construction of the Blue Line extension into the northeast section of the city. This northeast line is expected to have very high ridership and it would serve as an effective continuation of the very popular south corridor that is currently in operation. Not to fund it would be a disappointment for the city.

Oddly enough, though, the city may actually move ahead with another line – the north corridor Purple Line commuter rail system – if it finds federal funds in the economic stimulus to begin construction. This corridor, which, because of low ridership projections, is far less cost effective than would be the Blue Line extension, would nonetheless be far cheaper to build, at $372 million, versus $1 billion. Each project is relatively advanced in the planning process, though, so the city could decide to divert some funds to each of the corridors depending on revenues from the stimulus.

Image above: Sun Rail alignment, from Sun Rail

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