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The Fatal Flaw of Florida High-Speed Rail

Florida High Speed Rail Map

» Project, competing for stimulus funds, ignores downtown Orlando completely.

For years, the state of Florida has been dreaming about a high-speed rail system connecting its largest cities, and in 2000, voters approved a constitutional amendment that would have required a network of trains operating at 120 mph and above to be built. In 2004, the Florida electorate — persistent in proving its shortsightedness, prodded on by then-Governor Jeb Bush — overwhelmingly struck down the law. The high-speed rail authority that was supposed to supervise the construction and operation of the project sat in unfunded purgatory for four years.

But the passage of the stimulus bill in early 2009 provided the state another opportunity to pursue the program, and the Florida High-Speed Rail Authority has reconstituted itself with the sole purpose of taking a slice of the $8 billion federal pie reserved for better train systems. Last Friday, the state submitted a preliminary application for a $2.5 billion share of the cash. That’s enough to at least theoretically construct the first segment of the system, which would operate along the roughly 90 miles of I-4 between Tampa and Orlando, the state’s second- and third-largest metro regions, respectively, with a collective population of almost 5 million people. The trip would take just over an hour to complete. Future phases of the system would head west to St. Petersburg and south to Miami.

A high-speed rail system in the Sunshine State would be quite appropriate, as the peninsula’s cities are large, they’re well within commuting distance, and they suffer from significant road congestion. A train network would provide a very useful alternative to the sprawled-out car-only culture that pervades much of the state’s current development. The system could also be an exciting proving ground for the use of Bombardier’s JetTrain, which allows 150 mph top speeds without the use of electric catenary — though it sacrifices significantly in terms of environmental effects.

But the planned corridor for the first phase of the project — which the state has already spent more than $1 billion acquiring and planning — is problematic enough to raise concerns about whether investment in this system is an appropriate use of Washington’s money. The western terminus of the route is acceptable — a station would be constructed in downtown Tampa. The route would then, less suitably, follow I-4 across the state, until it reaches the southern suburbs of Orland0, where the corridor will diverge from I-4 onto the Beachline Expressway to reach the Orlando Airport. Along the way, the line will serve the northern suburbs of Lakeland, the Disney World Complex, and the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center, near Sea World.

Not getting stations: downtown Orlando and Lakeland. That’s a huge loss, because it eliminates the possibility of using high-speed rail as an effective development mechanism that can spur dense, mixed-use building. Stations near Disney World and the Convention Center are located in areas that are already mostly built up, but in a sprawled-out fashion. On the other hand, both Orlando and Lakeland have rejuvenating downtowns that are walkable and would grow up if high-speed rail stopped in them. Orlando is investing in a major new arena and a performing arts center, and a commuter rail system linking downtown with the northern and southern suburbs is in development. In other words, these are places worth further investment.

To serve Lakeland, a spur off I-4 could connect through downtown quite easily. In Orlando, trains could continue up I-4 into downtown after the Convention Center stop, and then head back towards the airport, from which trains south to Miami would eventually extend.

Without the connection to downtown Orlando, Florida high-speed rail becomes a tourist train, designed to pull people from the airport and Tampa to Orlando-area attractions. A more suitable project would align those tourist-transport goals with developmental ones, using the rail network to encourage high density growth, not more sprawl, in the areas that need it most.

Image above: Florida High-Speed Rail Plan, from FHSR Authority

32 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Alex

    I just don’t get this state. They just don’t seem to want to make anything centralized — from city planning to transit to anything and everything else. You hear about these plans, which sound great… then you look at the details, and your like, huh?

    I don’t know, FL HSR must be assuming SunRail (commuter rail) and LRT will be approved and built. That would essentially connect HRS to downtown either from the convention area or MCO.

    http://www.sunrail.com/

  • NikolasM

    It doesn’t look like it would be too difficult to route it through Orlando between the airport and Disney World. I bet Disney thinks that would be scary for their patrons for some sad reason or another.

  • jhunt

    I think the real problem is rider usage. While Orlando’s Lynx system is one of the best bus transit systems in the country, it is still a bus transit system. Buses only arrive once or twice an hour, they’re loud, smelly, etc etc. The network is sprawled out, and the routes are confusing with stops far apart.

    While it’s tempting to simply drop Lynx altogether, it is a respectable program. In my opinion (as a native Orlandoian and transit newbie), would be a light rail system that served as the backbone for the whole area, and Lynx acting as a filler, stopping at light rail stations and nearby areas. Ideally, the right of way already owned by Expressway Authority could be used for the majority of the project. SR 417, SR 408, SR 528 (leading from tourist town to MCO to the coast) and I-4 (along with the north western parts of the beltway still under construction) would provide an excellent backbone for a viable mass transit system. HSR would simply be icing on the cake.

    My point is tangental to the post’s; without a viable mass transit system that connects developed areas to developed areas, HSR will simply be a tourist attraction and nothing more.

    Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t ride it though!

  • Rockfish

    So the purpose of HSR is to go from airport-to-airport? Great.

  • Future Schema

    Metcalf’s Law on networks really needs to become part of the evaluation criteria for these HSR proposals. Airport connections definitely need to be in the mix, but not to the exclusion of denser urban areas.

  • AL

    Connection to the airport is probably less expensive than to go downtown, so maybe this a method to keep Phase 1 costs down. Is the long-range plan to build a spur to downtown as the system expands north towards Talahasee etc? Couldn’t find any detailed maps on the FL-HSR website.

  • Cameron Slick

    A connection from the Orlando airport to downtown Orlando and onto Jacksonville and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard HSR system seems to be where they would be heading. Does anybody know if downtown Orlando is on the drawing board for something along those lines?

  • Sean

    Just as the freeway spurred greater auto usage and auto centric development, high speed rail can and will spur more mass transit usage and rail connections to and from a major station.

    We should not fear building HSR in cities without great mass transit systems. HSR can be the catalyst to improving mass transit.

  • ronald reed

    I have been a been a hugh supporter or high speed rail system for years.

    I also support the state constitution and for a Governer to simply ignore a mandate by a fair election in 2000. In my opinion is criminal and should be investagated. It would have been cost effective to at least begin the logistics of high speed transit. (Nine years ago)
    Enough of my soap box and get to my point. I live in central florida and travel troughout the state. I have wondered how the proposed routes were established. The orginal plan was to use CSX existing railway and make connections and reroute CSX trains somewhere. this was defeated in Tallahasse by some Governer wannabee making some agrument that trains would be routed through downtown Lakeland. I have been to lakeland and trains already travel through there everyday so whats the big deal. Anyway, if new track was going to be laid for CSX then why not the transit authority just build there own rail system. It seems that it would be cost effective to run.

    East from I-4 prior to crossing the St Johns river at exit 108 follow either the existing road or use the power companies right of way to state road 415 follow 415 to Sandford airport and 417 to Orlando international and staight to disney and tampa. Bring a spur up to sanford auto station and quick commute to downtown.

    Terminals at debary, osteen,sanford, north east to daytona beach , south to Airport and orlando eventaully to TAMPA and miami.

    Miami could be reach either by the beeline or down 95 from daytona.

    The previous administration as well as the current has done nothing. If we are to see true economic development and true recession ending stimus. we need to stop wasting money and start placing it into real stuctures. Assets that will provide tangable production. Increasing unemplyment benifits for white collar works is not the answer. Developing real jobs is the answer. Making cheap reliable rapid transit in central florida may not be a complete solution but it would be a start. It should be major priority for the homeland security. High speed transit could alway be used for immediate evacuation of area imminate danger. With a lower need to autotransit less accidents less per capita use of fossil fuel. I would also like to see a hybid system utilizing eletric rails for downtown spurs.

    I feel this is a lost cause because the corporate greed and some very large corporations of this state control Tallahasse. Even a state admendment can be easily overturned by just rewording the content.

  • PPP

    One of the proved advantages of high-speed rail systems is going from downtown to downtown. Having no station in Orlando´s downtown means getting a much lower ridership, so the question is: could this be changed??

  • I’m affraid it’s a bit too late to get any change out of them. The gouvernment invested way too much money into this to just let it go. They’ll stick with their original plan no matter what.

  • Spokker

    Disney provides free transportation to/from Orlando Airport. It’s a loss leader to ensure that their guests are helpless if they want to visit other area attractions. I doubt they want high speed rail if it’s going to service other area attractions. They’ll continue to push their own transportation service very hard.

  • iZach

    I agree with the article on the Orlando bit. It makes sense for railways to move from city center to city center, unlike airports and seaports, which unless your city is on a coast/harbour, you would need extra transport to get to your final destination. Getting rid of a car-centric Florida is needed for the economy to start turning its wheels again. The environment should be upkept and maintained well(I’m not a global-warming alarmist), regardless of whether we’re on the verge of burning up.

    Florida can’t purchase the JetTrain anymore, Bombardier-Adtranz discontinued the line. It would only reflect the northeastern Acela service, without the catenary. No, if Florida wants the essence of “Euro-rail”, then they need to purchase something from Europe. European rail manufacturers have their plants here in the US, they just need to jack up the demand. Diesel is not an option for true high-speed rail. It may have worked back in the 30s-60s with UP’s City of San Francisco and Virgin/Scotrail’s Caledonian Sleeper, but electric is the market for investment. It’s clean(up until you find out that the electric is fueled by coal… *gasp*), efficient, and imperative to our nation’s grid system(transport, fuel, etc.). Roads and airways are chocked up… this will alieveate some of that congestion. You can’t add one more flight, and expand one more lane and expect progress.

  • Nathanael

    The real problem is that Florida has been totally unwilling to commit money to anything. And the JetTrain is dead.

    I’m fairly certain this could be extended to downtown Orlando, and Orlando intercity station. If it got built at all.

  • Reedman

    Any high speed rail needs to meet/join the proposed restoration of New Orleans to Orlando service by Amtrak. Having two disconnected pieces of rail in Orlando would be insanely stupid (Metcalfe’s Law applies here).

  • Tony

    In answer to someone’s question – yes, essentially the purpose of high-speed rail is as an alternative to air routes. It is supposed to be a long-haul express type setup with limited stops.

    Residential, mixed use, and downtown type communities are better served by systems like commuter rail and bus service.

    Running high-speed rail into downtown Orlando would make about as much sense as building JFK at Times Square.

    One of the biggest problems with high speed rail in FL is that we don’t have the local public transportation systems at the endpoints. Nobody was going to ride it because, once you get off the train in Orlando, you have no way to get around. Orlando is finally getting to work on commuter rail, but if HSR had proceeded on schedule it would be running right now, carrying almost no passengers.

    At this point, it is looking like commuter rail is going to go ahead. Ideally, we’d be betting both commuter and HSR at the same time. But at least with stops at Disney and the convention center, there millions of potential riders of HSR that there wouldn’t be if it stopped instead in downtown.

  • In answer to someone’s question – yes, essentially the purpose of high-speed rail is as an alternative to air routes. It is supposed to be a long-haul express type setup with limited stops.

    When you only displace air travel, you get debacles like Eurostar. HSR is only successful when it can also displace car travel, and that required being competitive on door-to-door time, which means stops near where people want to go.

    Running high-speed rail into downtown Orlando would make about as much sense as building JFK at Times Square.

    No, running high-speed rail into Orlando Airport would make about as much sense as putting Penn Station in southeastern Queens.

  • High speed rail is good anywhere large populations regularly commute. In the UK and Europe it has also bridged the gap across the channel. It has cuts down the time it takes to get between the major cities. It is a major expense but makes things faster, electric trains are probably a better option in this day and age.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I wounder could they built a low speed rail spur from this rail system down to Key West using some of the old railroad right of way considering that the population has grown large in the last 30 years. The high speed rail lines seem to be going south and going south to Key West would be instering.

  • The old ROW is in disrepair, with some of the bridges demolished. It’d be expensive to bring back to use.

  • Thad

    The Florida HSR is going to all of the places it needs to go. I can’t speak for the people of Tampa and Orland and the communities in between, but I can say, that the people in Miami (I’m from there) will only take the train as an alternative to the 4 hour drive for their weekend getaways to Disney, Universal, Sea World and Busch Gardens or to conventions or business meetings in Orlando. From an outsider’s perspective, people who work in downtown Orlando would be the only ones who would benefit from a station there. Most people who go on pleasure trips to Orlando mainly only go to the resorts and theme parks which aren’t downtown. Most people with business purposes end up at the convention center

    The Miami extension will run to the new intermodal center by our airport (which is a more central location) and not go to downtown, and Miami has a bigger downtown with more mass transit and attractions than Orlando and Tampa’s. The HSR will be connected downtown via a transfer to the Metrorail.

    Since tourism is what our states economy runs on, the HSR is going to be geared towards tourist traffic more so than commuter traffic. A commuter rail connection between the HSR and Downtown is more appropriate.

  • Kevin Wright

    High Speed rail is a big-government pipe dream. All the county center critters that promote it will never use it. They think that if they build it, some how they will clear the roads of enough of the little people so that THEY can use the roads a little better.
    Rail does not go where I want to go when I want to get there.
    Let us all quit pretending here. The Federal government is MORE than bankrupt, and promoting transportation panaceas will not hide the fact.
    Do you really want to get somewhere fast and rebuild our tattered economy?
    Let us build Autobahn 2.0 (Privately funded) – The ultimate unlimited speed highway that incorporates new technolgies for greater utility and safety. Why should only Germans get the best roads? Can’t we do better?
    If All you train trolls actually used AMtrak, then you might have a leg to stand on in this argument, otherwise, get a life.

  • HSR is a big government pipedream but Interstates aren’t? WTF?

  • The idea of the Privately funded highways never really works out that well such as with the 2 Billon dollar widening of the Washingtion Beltway from 8 to 12 lanes to intall hot toll lanes that do not have a set toll price but can go as high as they want with no limits. This 2 billon dollar project was only for 14 miles of highway. And they are planning on adding hotlanes to another 53 mile section which could be two to three times the cost to widen. At the same time the cost to add a thrid track to the Amtrack mainline from Fredricksburg to Washingtion DC is only going to cost 72 millon for 11.5 miles of thrid track mainline.

    When I was on Amtrack going though the beltway at regular 40 miles on hour we were flying pasted the river of cars that were bumper to bumper for 30 miles. If say three billon were spent on the 110 mile long railroad mainline from Washingiton DC to Richmond VA we could have eletric trains and speeds of a 110 miles on hour for less then the cost of 20 miles of beltway widening.

  • c van dette

    if u go to the rest areas on I-4 and ask the people there if they would take t hsrail between Tampa and Orlando the answer was 95% no way .there is no way to go anywhere ineither city when you get there.how do you get from the industrial part of north tamp to orlando suburbs???????

  • Neo

    Obama Syndrome, take it or live in another socialist country.

  • pete fraser

    The public deserves more information. They do not realize that the track must serve only the High Speed Line and that every road, and rail crossing must be re-routed under or over the high speed line. If funded by the Feds it means Buy America; there are no current facilities making high sped locomotives and it takes 5 years to build prototypes and 2 years to test.
    This is a pipe dream, if others have it so must we, and with the current deficits, why increase them to build a train that will not make money and will have to be financed, once running, by Fl State.

  • […] ownership. Despite their analysis, the Florida project had its flaws. In 2009, Yonah Freemark criticized the line’s eastern terminus for stopping short of Downtown Orlando. On the western end, the line […]

  • Govenor Scott was right turning down federal funding for the new rail system. We have enough budget problems without adding another to the list. Straighten out our house first and then take another look at it later. Corrine Brown does not care how much of the tax payers money is used to help fund this project. Without thinking out how this rail system will succeed shes all for it. I know how she tried to save the base closure of Cecil Field. As far as I’m concerned her blaming gov. Scott for picking on are dear president Obama is the most childish thing I’ve ever heard. Governor you were right and you have my backing. Let her pay for it.

    • We have enough budget problems without adding another to the list.

      Note the absurdity of this talking point: the federal funds were already appropriated, and when Florida turned them down, other states take them instead. There were no state funds required, and a private franchise bidding to operate the service that was willing to guarantee that the state would not have to pay for operations.

      So the reason for not building the train was “too many budget problems already” when Florida building this train would not have added one dime to either the state or federal budget deficits.

      And now a 90mph passenger rail is being built from the other direction, by the private corridor owner of the line from Miami to near Orlando, likely in pursuit of windfall profits in property development and freight rail access between the FEC line and the CSX system at Orlando, in pursuit of the new freight business that will show up with the over 2x increase in size of the New Panamax freight vessels and the dredging of Port Miami to support the New Panamax size.

  • S. Quade

    In “high-speed-rail” countries, trains cross relatively short areas at stunning speeds. This “high speed” plan for Florida won’t be high-speed! It’s a commuter train. Shouldn’t get bailout funding. Apply for commuter-train funds.

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