How Does Lakeland Fit into Florida's Strategy for High-Speed Rail?

» 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

16 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • I’m sure USF will be lobbying heavily for the Polk Parkway option, too – with HART in Tampa/Hillsborough County planning on building the Downtown Tampa–USF light rail line first, they could shuttle students back and forth between campuses entirely on other people’s infrastructure.

    If the Kathleen Road station *is* chosen, I’m thinking Lakeland and/or Polk County might start looking into building a light rail line on Kathleen Road between the HSR station and Main Street. It’s too bad they won’t be able to have a transit sales tax referendum on the ballot this autumn because of some bizarre Florida taxation law…

    Yonah: Slightly off-topic, but have you heard anything about TBARTA and/or HART trying to speed up the initial light rail lines to open around the same time as the high-speed line?

  • Andy K

    It seems like the “dreams” that HSR in the U. S. might lead to denser development may not come to pass. The U. S. seems to love sprawl.

  • Why can’t a rail interchange station be placed where the HSR I-state corridor crosses the Sunrail corridor … it would make all the Sunrail stations into direct feeders for the HSR.

  • OceanRailroader

    Are they going to build this thing or is this another study? I mean what real date do they have on starting this where the shovel and the rail is going to meet the ground?

  • Eric G.

    Has anyone looked at the aerials? On Google Earth it clearly looks like FDOT left extra ROW in the I-4 median where it crosses County Rd. 700/ US 98. That would seem to be a logical place to put the station since it’s a major arterial that connects directly to the downtown Lakeland core. It also looks like there is significant redevelopment potential there.

  • Rodrigo

    The Polk County station should go in Lakeland. It makes the most logical sense as this is the area of highest density in Polk County. For the Florida HSR system to be successful however, the Miami line needs to be prioritized and built ASAP, because without Miami, Orlando and Tampa are nothing.

  • OceanRailroader

    It is very easy to follow this railroad path on google street view.

  • aw

    Remind me why the FRA granted Florida this money. They are going to pony up to complete the line if further federal money is not forthcoming, right? Right???

    • Florida threw a hissy fit about being entitled to funds because it reserved space in the I-4 median. LaHood complained that the state did nothing to build connecting transit; Florida then spent a pittance on Sunrail, forcing LaHood to concede and give it the money.

      • Nathanael

        & Sunrail won’t actually connect to the Florida HSR plans. Insanity.

        To be fair, Tampa seems to be making serious plans for local streetcar connections.

  • agreed with what you are saying Yonah. I have thought for a while now that unused median space could be used for highspeed rail, either elevated or lowered or at the same level as road traffic. However in thinking on this I have run into issues of downtown access, or in effect lack-ther-of or in effect crippling any system designed to be high speed. the main benefit is now gone! I concluded that with light rail connections it could be done but again its not ideal, and it severely cripples the system. I think medians with proven ROW should be used for this (also helps car drivers to see trains wooshing past them at twice their speed)

    As expected we may have “high speed” but it wont be done right and if its not done right then nobody else will want to do it and then we are stuck for another 20 years with less then adequate slow rail, or ineffectual high speed rail.

    hopefully I will be proven wrong, but so far, I don’t think I will be… sigh

  • GHOST TRAIN

    This should be interesting to watch. Polk ( Lakeland ) county has serious problems with sink holes. They open without warning and swallows blocks at a time.

    Imagine a train travelling 100 mph and a sinkhole opens up.

    http://blog.sellsiusrealestate.com/wp-content/guatemala-sink-hole.gif

  • Bonnie

    Right…the sink holes…

  • OceanRailroader

    I remebered hearing that there was a Streetcar called a Red Devil that could go over a 100 miles on hour and that they where in Ohio during the 1930′s. If this high speed rail line is going to have five stops with in 83 miles they should consder replaceing the big long and bulky high speed train sets with maybe ten of these super high speed streetcars so that they have more fexiblity in moving around between all the stops on this rail line.

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