» Nation’s first true high-speed line, in Central Florida, will serve Lakeland on its way between Tampa and Orlando.
After receiving $1.25 billion from the federal government last month for its planned 84-mile high-speed line, Florida is virtually guaranteed to offer the first true fully high-speed rail service in the United States. The state’s project, which will cost about $2.6 billion to complete, will connect the state’s second and third largest metropolitan areas with frequent service along the I-4 corridor. About three million annual riders are expected by 2030.
Though the focus of the system has been on its Orlando and Tampa terminals, it will also serve Lakeland, which will account for about half of all intercity riders. Florida must focus closely on the specific design of its route and stations to ensure the success of the system. Thus, making the right decisions about where the Lakeland station will be located and how the surrounding area is developed is essential.
The choice to build the new rail system along the Interstate highway corridor will make the system relatively easy to implement; the state is unlikely to face delays caused by NIMBYism, since the route is already used by hundreds of thousands of drivers everyday. In addition, the corridor is already wholly owned by the public and a median will allow the construction of an elevated guideway on the majority of the route between downtown Tampa and Orlando International Airport.
The highway allows a fully independent right-of-way, unaffected by grade crossings and free from the Federal Railroad Administration’s rules restricting the use of fast trains in shared freight and passenger rail corridors. Heavier vehicles (such as the Amtrak Acela) are significantly more expensive and have diminished performance compared to their lighter European peers, which the FRA will only allow to operate in fully separated rights-of-way.
Yet the selection of the Interstate corridor has its own major negative consequences. For one, it means no direct access to downtown Orlando. According to Florida Rail Enterprise’s Chief Operating Officer Nazih Haddad, there is no room in the median of I-4 near Orlando to allow the trains to enter. Meanwhile, the use of existing freight tracks is impossible because it would require removing all freight service from the tracks because of the decision to use non-FRA compliant rolling stock.
Therefore, no connection to Orlando’s center city is planned until the system extends north to Jacksonville in the future. A connection south to Miami is prioritized for now.
Nor is a direct connection to downtown Lakeland planned, despite that city being just off Interstate 4. Florida could improve the existing tracks and run trains directly into the center city, but that solution would engender similar problems as those experienced in downtown Orlando.
As a result, Lakeland will get a stop, but it will be somewhere in the median of I-4. Exactly how it’s implemented will determine whether the network’s projected ridership will play out as expected, and whether trains will be able to induce the kind of spin-off development for which affected cities hope.
Transportation board members in Polk County — whose largest city is Lakeland — weighed in this week on the county’s planned station; it will get only one, at least for now. They agreed unanimously to prioritize a stop at the intersection of Interstate 4 and Polk Parkway, where the University of South Florida Polytechnic is planning a new campus, in the midst of what can only realistically be described as rampant suburban sprawl. The University’s master plan for its new campus won’t help matters much, as academic buildings will be surrounded by parking lots and walkable connections to the future rail station would be tenuous at best.
Commissioners argued in favor of the Polk Parkway stop claiming that it would be better for future development and that it was closer to the county’s other major population center, in Winter Haven.
Yet this approach would do little to leverage the high-speed rail station’s ability to concentrate density, as the area is far from any population centers and the University’s design will eliminate a large parcel of land from development options.
The commissioners’ second choice is a station at Kathleen Road, near downtown Lakeland. This area is already relatively well developed and has transit connections, unlike the other potential site. A high-speed rail station there could serve as a development catalyst, helping to extend the existing downtown, becoming far more than just a place where people catch the train.
But the approach of Lakeland area officials suggests that they wouldn’t take advantage of the ability to densify the neighborhood around that stop either — the board’s members seem secure in assuming that everyone will drive to stations anyway. With that kind of attitude, some of the advantages of the implementation of fast trains simply disappear. It could be a disappointing outcome for one of the major stations on the nation’s first high-speed line.
Florida is moving forward with its high-speed line quickly. According to Operating Officer Haddad, “We hope to be in the ground within an eleven month period,” with service starting in early 2015. But the federal government’s limited commitment thus far isn’t strong enough, and the state isn’t providing any more money; the conservative state’s willingness to endorse a rail program at all is a serious improvement over the anti-rail policies of former governor Jeb Bush.
Yet as Mr. Haddad puts it, “We’re building something from scratch… we can’t do half of it.” He remains confident that the FRA will find the funds over the next few years to guarantee the Florida system’s completion. Here’s to hopes that it can be done right.
Image above: Florida High-Speed Rail Map, from Florida High-Speed Rail