Florida’s been flirting with the idea of a high-speed rail network for years now, having approved funding for a line between Tampa and Orlando in 2000, before stripping the proposal from the state budget in 2004. The $2 billion line, if built, would have been operated using Bombardier’s 150 mph-capable gas-powered JetTrain, not the electric trains standard on every other high-speed rail system. The Florida High Speed Rail Authority has been continuing research on the line since 2005, and recently reactivated itself because of the $8 billion authorized for fast trains in the stimulus bill. The Authority has encourage the state government to apply for funds from the feds now that they’re available.
At the same time, Florida’s come slightly closer to actual construction on the 61-mile SunRail commuter rail line, which would run from downtown Orlando north to DeLand and south to Poinciana. In February, Governor Charlie Crist (R) came out in favor of the program, indicating that the project would be approved by the state legislature. The Orlando Sentinel, however, reports that members of the state’s Senate Ways and Means Committee have been fighting the commuter rail project, arguing that the state would be better off spending on road programs. Florida doesn’t have enough money to pay both for the rail system and for roads already programmed by the state’s TIP. Even though its expected ridership, about 7,000 a day, isn’t quite up to national expectations and probably wouldn’t win New Start funding, SunRail may well be a worthwhile project.
But the argument some in the state are making – that the commuter rail network is necessary for the successful funding of the high-speed rail program – isn’t an accurate assessment of federal standards. The Sentinel reports that Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, a major supporter of SunRail, said that federal transportation officials “Would be out of their minds to consider high-speed rail without SunRail. That’s as blunt as I can be.” Mr. Crotty, however, doesn’t seem to realize that there’s little indication, at least so far, that decision-making by Washington on high-speed rail funding will probably not be informed by transit services connecting to the rail systems. Doc Dockery seems to understand the issue a bit better, saying that the “”connectivity issue” is little more than a “catchphrase to promote SunRail.””
While I have no doubt that people in the Orlando area think that SunRail would be an effective addition to transportation in their community, the point that its construction is absolutely necessary for Florida to high-speed rail funds is false. The federal government is likely to judge Florida’s route on its merits alone – not that of SunRail.
Image above: Complete Florida High Speed Rail network, from MyFOXOrlando