Commuter Rail Florida Intercity Rail Miami

Florida East Coast Railway Studied for Potential Intercity and Commuter Services

Florida East Coast Railway Map» State applies for stimulus funds to connect Jacksonville and Miami; a Miami-West Palm Beach local service also possible.

In addition to submitting an application for $2.5 billion in funds to speed trains between Tampa and Orlando, Florida asked the federal government earlier this month for some $268 million to restore Amtrak service to the state’s east coast. If the Department of Transportation chooses to reward money to the state, trains could be running between Jacksonville and Miami twice a day on renewed tracks in a few years. A new commuter rail system between Miami and West Palm Beach could follow soon after.

Today, Amtrak serves Miami with two daily trains, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star, both of which originate in New York City. The Meteor runs between Jacksonville and Miami on a relatively direct route through Orlando and West Palm Beach, taking 9h32 to complete the Florida segment. The Star meanders, heading to Tampa after Orlando before retracing its steps back to the east coast, increasing journey times between Miami and Jacksonville to 11h10, if the trains are on time. Both routes terminate at the Miami station, which is far northwest of downtown.

In the car, by contrast, the 350-mile trip takes five and a half hours.

The Florida East Coast Railway, however, may hold the keys to better Florida service. Built in 1885, the line is privately owned and used for shipping, having last served passengers in 1968 when it was shut down due to insufficient ridership. It connects to five intermodal terminals and hosts dozens of daily freight trains. Between West Palm Beach and Miami, the line is roughly one mile east of the existing Amtrak route, making it closer to the densely populated coastline. In addition, it passes directly through the downtowns of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, and Boca Raton. Further north, trains link Palm Bay, Daytona Beach, and St. Augustine, none of which currently offer Amtrak.

Minor upgrades of the line would provide new service to 12 stations along the coast, serving 8.3 million Floridians living in 11 counties; initial estimates show the route would attract 250,000 annual riders. The Miami to Jacksonville run would be reduced to only six hours. The section between Miami and West Palm Beach would offer new commuter rail service to complement the existing Tri-Rail operations running further to the west in a parallel alignment.

A more comprehensive refitting of the line, which would require double and triple tracking, would cost $5 billion and include forty to sixty stops. That project, however, is nothing more than a pipe dream since Florida’s main priority at the moment is Florida High-Speed Rail, whose second phase would connect Miami to Orlando in a new right-of-way following either I-95 or the Florida turnpike. It might be worthwhile to consider integrating that project with the east coast plan by using the existing Florida East Coast Railway for high-speed services between Miami and Cocoa, where some trains would continue north to Jacksonville and others could run west to Orlando. Freight operations might be shifted to the less-convenient-for-passengers Amtrak route.

Florida’s attempts to get funding from the federal government may stall out, however, if the state doesn’t take seriously recent threats by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Mr. LaHood has made clear that he expects the state to contribute to rail project funding if it wants Washington to reciprocate. Though his comments have generally been directed at the SunRail project, which was awarded a New Starts funding guarantee earlier this year but lacks state support, they could also be interpreted in the case of Tri-Rail, which has had fiscal problems of its own. The commuter rail system lacks a stable revenue source and has as a result been forced to raise fares, partially resulting in a quick decrease in ridership at the system’s 18 stations. A new transfer charge to switch to local buses hasn’t helped much, either.

The state may convene a special legislative session in December to consider allocating funds to SunRail and Tri-Rail, but legislators have been reluctant to poor money into such public transit operations. We’ll see whether the appeal of high-speed rail funds from Washington is enough to convince them otherwise.

At the local level, investments in a new commuter rail service between Miami and West Palm Beach would likely raise the ire of Tri-Rail supporters, who would be (for good reason) afraid that the new line would take away many of Tri-Rail’s existing riders. The east coast route is more convenient for more people than is Tri-Rail. Will the services co-exist? Will the affected counties be able to afford operations on both lines?

Despite the attractiveness of new rail service, then, it is unrealistic to envision Florida investing in East Coast service unless the federal government steps in.

Image above: Florida East Coast Railway map, from FEC Railway

Florida High-Speed Rail Orlando Tampa

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

Florida High-Speed Rail Illinois

Competition for Rail Grants Heats Up as Illinois and Florida Articulate Proposals

Illinois Governor wants legislature to appropriate $400 million for effort; Florida simply demands money from Washington.

We all knew we’d have a fight on our hands after the Congress approved $8 billion in funds for high-speed rail back in February, and now the contest is entering prime time. California remains the nation’s biggest potential winner; its $30 billion project from San Francisco to Los Angeles already has $10 billion in funds approved by voters last November and the line itself is practically construction-ready. Illinois — wanting a line between Chicago and St. Louis — and Florida — envisioning fast connections between Orlando and Tampa — are particularly interested in not being left out. But their efforts aren’t identical and they prove that it’s high time the federal government define not only what makes a rail line qualified for funds, but also what percentage of total project costs should be covered by local sources.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (D) has asked his state’s lawmakers to include $400 million for high-speed rail in a $30 billion public works package currently being considered in Springfield. Previously, State Representative Elaine Nekritz (D) attempted to include $1 billion for the effort in the bill, but her effort was rebuffed by leadership. A 110 mph line between Chicago and St. Louis would cost $2.7 billion to build; it’s unclear where Mr. Quinn expects the rest of the money to come from, considering that he has previously suggested that he only expects to receive $500 million of the Recovery dollars. Midwest states as a whole announced last month their intentions to apply for $3.5 billion of the funds to build fast lines spreading out from Chicago to Madison, St. Louis, and Detroit.

Florida’s leadership, on the other hand, seems to expect that the feds will simply fork over $2 billion for a line between Orlando International Airport and Tampa. Funding for that project was approved by voters in 2000, only to be rejected three years later following a campaign against it by former governor Jeb Bush (R). Current governor Charlie Christ (R) seems more in favor of rail projects in general, but has done nothing at all to find state government funds for the system. After (unhelpful) comments by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, Florida’s High-Speed Rail Authority mistakenly thinks that its project is the furthest along of any in the nation.

I’ll ignore for the moment the fact that Florida’s proposal is poorly designed; it won’t even serve downtown Orlando, precluding many of the potentially positive land use impacts of rail investment there.

The real question is whether Florida should get a huge funding boost if other states are willing to leverage local money in a way that it is not? Wouldn’t it be unfair if Florida got just as many federal dollars as Illinois or California, states that have been proactive in choosing to invest their own funds in their respective projects? If Florida got away with its costs being covered entirely by the federal government, why wouldn’t other states ask for the same treatment? What would be the incentive of investing local funds in such infrastructure projects?

It’s clear that Washington needs to be more explicit in defining its decision-making process for allocating rail funding; a line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, for instance, by definition deserves more federal money than one between Boise and Missoula, because the former would be used by far more people per route mile or construction dollar than the latter. But no policy currently on the books at DOT ensures that the former line would be picked for funding first. An outcome-based examination, leading directly to decisions about monetary outlays, needs to be codified and enforced.

Once projects have been cleared as appropriately cost-efficient for federal funding, Washington also doesn’t have an explicit policy about how much of costs to cover. The New Starts process used to judge and fund new transit lines results in seemingly random decisions about federal shares of construction costs: Washington will pay for 34% of the ARC Tunnel in New York, but 50% of the second phase of Sacramento’s South Corridor LRT. Why? No one knows, and that’s a problem because if states are applying for rail funds, they shouldn’t have to commit more than they need to simply because they’re afraid that DOT will hesitate if it’s asked to pay too much. Florida shouldn’t have 100% of its rail line’s price covered by Mr. LaHood if Illinois is going to pay for half of its line’s cost, so Washington should pay a standardized construction cost share for qualified projects.

I suggest that the federal government stick to a four-step process to fund and construct rail projects, modeled on the New Start and highway funding models:

  1. States or regions study a project for consideration, using local funds;
  2. That project is analyzed based on its projected ridership, cost per mile, environmental impacts, land development impacts, etc; it is scored by the DOT, and must meet a required minimum to receive federal funds (similar to how New Starts projects are considered today);
  3. The federal government commits to 80% of the funding, with the other 20% of the money allocated by affected regions, states, or municipalities (highways are funded at an 80% federal share today);
  4. The project is built.

Once a rigorous system to judge the projects (#2) is established, this would provide states the kind of predictable, reliable process necessary to make building rail in the United States feasible. Earmarks by powerful congressional leaders to their preferred projects should not be allowed, because it would dilute the federal government’s ability to pay for the most deserving projects.

If Illinois and Florida’s respective lines met DOT’s criteria, the respective state governments would simply have to commit to 20% of the overall funding, and then they would be guaranteed 80% back from Washington. A failure to appropriate at the state level like Florida now would simply not be an option.

Of course, the other option is a national rail infrastructure operation under direct control of the U.S. DOT, but that’s going nowhere fast considering conservative America’s steadfast unwillingness to allow the federal government to invest directly in communities…

Commuter Rail Florida High-Speed Rail

SunRail and Florida HSR Promoted as Inexorably Linked

Florida HSRFlorida lawmakers, worried about the loss of funds for a central state commuter rail project, link the future of high-speed rail there to its success

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

Charlotte Commuter Rail Finance Florida Light Rail

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