China Commuter Rail Elections Florida High-Speed Rail Orlando

In China’s High-Speed Successes, a Glimpse of American Difficulties

» With political figures failing to account for the long-term interests of their constituents, the U.S. continues down its confused path.

The opening of the new $32.5 billion Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link this week marked a significant milestone in the world effort to improve intercity rail systems. Though the development of fast train networks in China has not been without its failings, the connection of the nation’s two largest metropolitan regions — the tenth and nineteenth-largest in the world — is a human achievement of almost unparalleled proportions, especially since it was completed a year earlier than originally planned and just three years after construction began. It comes as the Chinese government celebrates its 90th anniversary.

With ninety daily trains traveling the 819-mile link at average speeds of up to 165 mph, the corridor will likely soon become the most-used high-speed intercity rail connection in the world. Because of safety concerns, the quickest journey between travel endpoints will take 4h48, more than the four hours originally proposed. But that will still be more than twice as fast as the existing trip by train and about as quick as the air trip when including check-in times and the journey to and from the airport. So from the perspective of intercity mobility, the rail link will be a huge improvement. The fact that trains stop in the major cities of Tianjin, Jinan, Xuzhou, Bengu, and Nanjing (among many others) — and that they free up capacity on the older line for freight use — only improves matters.

China is in a stage of its economic progress that makes great works such as this high-speed system more feasible than similar works in more developed countries like the United States. While the comparison between the Beijing-Shanghai link and the New York-Chicago connection is hard not to make — each would serve resident populations of about sixty million along corridors of roughly 1,000 miles — their respective political contexts differentiate them to such a degree that makes them almost impossible to compare.

Some Americans may dismiss the Chinese achievement, suggesting that the system’s construction by a single-party government with authoritarian tendencies makes it in itself suspect. One of the great things about the American political system is that it attempts to respond to the demands of the citizenry. The defeat of several Democratic governors in last fall’s elections reflected on some degree of disenchantment with the Democratic Party in general, but in three cases — Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin — the GOP’s open opposition to intercity rail projects there clearly played a role in convincing voters, who evidently agreed with the anti-rail sentiment, to throw out Democrats. In some ways, it is a reflection on a successful democracy that the rail projects in those places were cancelled, whatever their technical merit.

Yet the completion of China’s longest high-speed line should raise questions in the minds of Americans about whether our particular political and economic system is most fit to compete in a rapidly changing global economy.

The United States, celebrating its own 235th anniversary, has in many ways yet to escape the doldrums of the recession. But unlike China, whose government moved forward quickly to invest in its economy in response to investor insecurity, the U.S. has been characterized by a pile-up of political figures grounding their schizophrenic decision-making in paranoia over the role of government and a general distaste for definitive action on anything.

This week’s endorsement of the Central Florida SunRail commuter train project by Governor Rick Scott (R) was a reflection of American democracy at its worse. Having complained of budget deficits and scorned off federal intercity rail funds for a fast train to link Tampa and Orlando that would have likely cost the state no money, Mr. Scott has given his go-ahead to a project whose primary beneficiary will be CSX, the freight rail operator, and whose costs to the state will run up the tab into the hundreds of millions of dollars — with few public benefits. The SunRail service will operate every 30 minutes at peak hours and every two hours during the middle of the day, at least at the beginning of operations. Future operations improvements lack funding.

The commuter line’s first phase was approved by the Federal Transit Administration in 2009 for New Starts funding because of years of influential lobbying by similarly debt-obsessed Congressman John Mica (R) despite considerable objections from the U.S. government over its cost effectiveness; it was arguably the most expensive per rider of any project approved that year. The project will serve an estimated 4,300 riders a day at a final cost of $1.2 billion, $432 million of which will be handed directly over to CSX for the purchase of its line.* This amounts to a state subsidy for a private corporation, in direct contrast to the high-speed rail line, which was attracting offers of hundreds of millions of dollars from private groups that saw operating profits on the horizon.

This in a country where even the head of the supposedly progressive party claims, just like the Republican opposition, that the best way to soothe the country’s economic woes is to reduce government spending. And meanwhile, expensive projects with only a minor impact on mobility or accessibility somehow make their way forward. Ideological consistency appears not to be an American strongpoint.

Americans cannot raise their hands in dispair, brushing off the successes of Chinese dictatorship as simply the consequence of a lack of democracy. The U.S. political system’s failures to adapt to contemporary needs are no fault of democratic practice.

Indeed, China was not alone in moving forward with fast train systems last week. The French railroads authority approved the first phase of the Sud Europe Atlantique high-speed line, which will run 190 miles from Tours to Bordeaux and decrease travel times from Paris to Bordeaux from three hours to 2h05 in 2017. The program is the largest public-private partnership ever signed in Europe and will cost a total of $11.3 billion, half of which will be covered by a group of private firms expected to pay off their initial capital expenses with fifty years of operating profits. In case the point was not clear, France is a perfectly democratic place; the project underwent ten years of studies before being approved for funding, including a significant round of public forums on the scheme. The program was approved by a succession of political leaders who were elected to their posts.

Thus it is not democracy in itself that makes it difficult to envision projects similar to the Beijing-Shanghai line being completed in the U.S., but rather our particular brand of democracy. Its short political term lengths, reliance on two center to center-right political parties, overwhelming involvement of lobbying groups in the legislative process, strong state governance, and weak local and state revenue production capabilities too often result in indecision, half-hearted solutions, and reckless governing logic that focuses on short-term wins more than long-term considerations. In many ways, it’s the opposite of the Chinese governance system, where most decisions are factored into a multi-decade conception for the country’s future by state master planners who seem to know what they’re doing. Do we?

What is the appropriate response to this problem? We can speculate away, but what is obvious is that American political support for specific investments in projects such as commuter trains or high-speed rail lines is haphazard at best and dangerously wasteful at worst. This is no way to run a country.

* The funds will allow SunRail to use the corridor during the day, but CSX will still be able to run freight trains on the corridor at night, potentially making maintenance of the line more difficult. This includes a completely out of proportion $200 million insurance policy that the state is paying to CSX to use the tracks. In addition, the funds provide tens millions of dollars to CSX to upgrade an adjacent line.

Image above: Shanghai Hongqiao station, from Flickr user triplefivechina (cc)

Florida High-Speed Rail Orlando Tampa

Florida Governor Rick Scott Rejects Funding for Tampa-Orlando Intercity Rail Project

» Despite its capital costs being almost entirely covered by Washington and plenty of evidence that private investors want to move forward, project is off the tracks for now.

Just days after the White House revealed its ambitions for a $53 billion, six-year plan for an American high-speed rail network, the place where it was all supposed to begin now appears to be out of the running. Today, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) announced that he would refuse $2.4 billion in federal funds to build a rail line between Orlando and Tampa. The project’s construction would have required $280 million in state aid to be completed, but projections had indicated that the line would cover its own operating costs.

The Obama Administration has funded the project more than any other outside of California and hoped that the scheme, which would have opened in 2016 as the first line in a nationwide network, would serve as a model for the rest of the country. Numerous private corporations — including international conglomerates such as Siemens, Alstom, and JR East — have indicated that they would be willing to pick up the state’s tab and cover construction and operations risks, in exchange for the right to operate the trains.

Yet Mr. Scott has moved to squash the project nonetheless, acting before those companies were supposed to respond to the state high speed rail authority’s request for proposals. This is a shortsighted move that will only benefit others: The federal funding will be redistributed to projects in states such as California and Illinois.

Citing concerns that the project’s costs would spin out of control and that taxpayers would be burdened with operating subsidies, Mr. Scott argued that fiscal prudence gave him no choice. The Governor apparently has no trust in the private companies he claims to laud, failing to give them a chance to demonstrate their interest in the project. He apparently has no interest in offering his citizens the opportunity to pioneer a mode of transportation that has been repeatedly scuttled, in Florida and elsewhere, by the distinctively American ability to ignore the potential benefits of intercity rail.

Indeed, while the Governor’s decision may have been framed in a rhetoric of financial austerity, the hastiness of the announcement and its timing just after the unveiling of the President’s high-speed rail proposal indicates that intercity rail, more than ever, has become a tool for partisan disagreement. Republicans all over the country, inspired by the refusal of federal funds for rail systems by Governors in Ohio and Wisconsin, have rallied against almost every such project. The House GOP budget, which would gut the rail program — as well as transit capital projects — is only a continuation of this crusade.

What does this say about the state of American transportation? Is the status quo, in which the vast majority of Americans get around only by car for short to mid-range journeys, ramping up congestion and increasing environmental degradation, acceptable? Do we have any interest in developing a future vision for our cities or our society as a whole?

Image above: Florida High-Speed Rail route alignment, from Florida High-Speed Rail

DOT Finance Florida High-Speed Rail Orlando Tampa

With More Federal Funding, Florida in Striking Distance of New High-Speed Line

» In sinking $800 million more into the Tampa-Orlando line, Obama Administration is making clear its interest in making this the nation’s model program for fast trains.

In terms of high-speed rail funding, the thinking of the current Department of Transportation is easy to understand: Of the dozens of projects proposed across the country, only one could offer true high-speed service and open before the end of President Obama’s second term, all within a relatively tight budget. That is Florida’s 84-mile Tampa-Orlando link, expected to be complete by 2015 at a cost of less than $3 billion. It is therefore no surprise that in the latest round of grants for fast train services, the project has been awarded enough money to virtually ensure its construction.

The DOT’s announcement, expected to be formalized on Thursday, will hand Florida $800 million of the $2.5 billion in total allocations from the Congress’ FY 2010 budget. The Sunshine State now has $2.05 billion in federal funds to complete its $2.7 billion project, including the $1.25 billion it received in January. A further $300 million is expected to follow in 2011 thanks to the $1 billion in additional funds expected to be earmarked for high-speed rail nationwide in the FY 2011 budget. This would be enough to pay for the whole line.

Of the remaining $1.7 billion to be allocated this week, $902 million will go to California, primarily for the construction of a new line in the state’s Central Valley, between Merced and Bakersfield; Iowa and Illinois won $230 million for a link between Chicago and Iowa City; Michigan received $150 million for the Dearborn-Kalamazoo line; and Connecticut landed $121 million for the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield connection. Several other projects, like Virginia’s Washington-Richmond corridor, Oregon’s Eugene-Portland line, and the Atlanta-Charlotte connection, won smaller planning grants. Of these projects, only Florida’s and California’s plans would produce true high-speed rail, operating at maximum speeds above 150 mph.

Unless Republican political foes of high-speed rail shut down these projects after November’s elections (likely in Wisconsin, possible in Ohio and Florida, unlikely in California), these funds are likely to be spent on actual construction, as were the $8 billion in funds distributed earlier this year. Once the DOT makes this week’s allocations official later this week, I will discuss their national implications.

But Florida is the biggest story here: In almost fully funding the state’s first line, the federal government is hoping to produce a model for the rest of the nation to eventually emulate. The Obama Administration, despite inducing a sea change in thinking about the role of intercity rail in American society, also has been rather incrementalist in its thinking. The government has steadily embraced the concept of high-speed rail but the Administration has not been particularly successful in making the issue big enough to ensure a massive Congressional allocation — yet.

Florida, because its project will be the first true high-speed rail line in the U.S. and will be done relatively soon, will be judged on its effectiveness and therefore serve as the standard for future U.S. fast train projects. That means the state has a particular obligation to ensure that the program is implemented with few or no cost overruns and that it is able to attract high ridership once it opens. If it is successful in the eyes of the media and the political class, increasing funding for this transportation mode will be virtually assured. Otherwise, far more ambitious schemes like California’s San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, will likely remain on the sidelines.

The Florida line will include five stations, in downtown Tampa, Lakeland, the Disney resorts, the Orange County Convention Center (pictured at top), and the Orlando Airport, and is expected to attract 2.4 million riders in its first year. Though trains will accelerate to up to 168 mph, express trains between Tampa and Orlando Airport will make the trip in 50 minutes — roughly 100 mph on average. The majority of the line will be built in the median of Interstate 4 by a public-private partnership responsible for construction, rolling stock, and operations. It is expected to be chosen at the end of next year, after an RFP review beginning in March.

A future extension to Miami would come next; this week the federal government also provided Florida several million dollars to study that project.

As I’ve argued several times before, Florida’s high-speed line is far from perfect. Most problematically, it includes no station in downtown Orlando; its highway alignment also limits associated development possibilities in Lakeland.

Nevertheless, the Obama Administration is right in its focus on this project. Florida’s interest in attracting foreign investors in the line’s construction and operation means that the corridor is likely to be well-run and offer a surprising alternative to the mediocre (and under-funded) Amtrak intercity service too many Americans think is as good as it gets. The fact that this link will be operationally profitable won’t hurt, either. By ensuring that the state gets its corridor up and running as soon as possible, the Obama Administration will be providing a model for the quality and undeniably exciting benefits of true high-speed rail, no matter its limitations in this context.

Image above: Conceptual layout of Orange County Convention Center Station south of Orlando, from Florida High-Speed Rail

Florida High-Speed Rail Miami Orlando

Florida Convenes Special Legislative Session for Sunrail, Tri-Rail, High-Speed Rail

» Newfound support for rail investment likely a result of push by DOT Secretary for the state to prop up train travel.

Update, 9 December 2009: Florida Senate passes the bill 27-10, an unexpectedly large majority, prepping the legislation for a signing by Governor Crist. Florida has put itself at the top, with California, in demanding federal funds for HSR.

Earlier this fall, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood gave Florida officials a choice: either buck up and support funding for the state’s commuter rail systems, or lose out on potential federal funding for a proposed high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando. Mr. LaHood’s challenge seems to have paid off: this week, state legislators began debating a law that would create a new Florida Rail Enterprise that would fund the existing Tri-Rail commuter system in Miami, ensure construction of the Orlando-area SunRail line, and take command of high-speed rail development. If the proposal passes next Wednesday as planned, Florida’s bid to host the nation’s first built-from-scratch high-speed line seems likely to win out.

With California, Florida has presented itself as a top competitor in the race for some of the nation’s $8 billion in stimulus money for fast trains. The state’s initial proposal has a $3.5 billion corridor between Tampa and Orlando along I-4 being constructed for an opening by 2014; it has asked Washington to cover $2.6 billion of those funds. The remaining costs would be covered by affected municipalities and corporations. Though the project lacks direct connections to downtown Orlando or Lakeland and would likely encourage sprawl in areas around Disney’s theme parks, it offers the possibility of up to 168 mph electric rail service and more than three million annual riders by 2025. An extension to Miami along the east coast could be built by 2017, the year before California’s phase one opens for its first riders.

Mr. LaHood’s suggestion earlier this year that Florida must fund its local rail systems before it is considered for high-speed funding encouraged the state assembly to hold a special week-long session on the matter, beginning yesterday. Most prominent in its goals: creating a new Florida Rail Enterprise organization that would operate as a division of the state DOT. FRE would develop a statewide intercity rail system and manage all of the state’s commuter rail lines, including Miami’s troubled Tri-Rail, which has been threatened with a shut-down if it is not adequately funded. Under the law, Tri-Rail would receive $15 million in state money annually for its survival.

Most relevant for Orlando-area residents, FRE would ensure the construction of the 61-mile SunRail corridor, which would connect the city’s northern and southern suburbs at a cost of $1.2 billion. Governor Charlie Crist (R), who has become a supporter of the project as he runs for Senate, sees it as a stepping stone towards high-speed rail. Not approving a bill supporting the project would be a “catastrophic” loss for the state according to the governor; indeed, it would mean Florida would lose its federal New Starts commitment to the project and it would probably be eliminated for consideration for the fast rail system. Politically, he would love to be able to announce a massive grant for the state; so would Mr. LaHood, since President Obama undoubtedly wants to repeat his 2008 victory in Florida in 2012.

Of course, passage of the bill won’t be as easy as it sounds, since similar legislation has failed in the state senate twice over the past two years. Though Senate President Jeff Atwater (R) claims he has the votes, he faces some in-party disgruntlement. Lakeland Senator Paula Dockery (R), who has been one of the major anti-rail advocates, continues to fight party leadership, arguing that the SunRail project is basically a pay-off to track owner CSX in the form of a massive $200 million-a-year liability policy for accidents on the line. Ms. Dockery is currently running for Governor against state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R), who is a supporter of the project. Ms. Dockery hopes to excited anti-tax tea partyers to her cause and win the campaign in 2010.

Meanwhile, the senate’s 14 Democrats (there are a total of 40 members in the body) are being pressured by the AFL-CIO to reject the plan. The union argues that the project does not guarantee stable, well-paying jobs. So it could be a close vote.

The senate’s passage of the proposal would basically ensure the creation of the FRE, since the house has signed through similar legislation repeatedly and will do the same this year. Mr. Crist will sign the bill into law.

If Florida passes the legislation, its application for high-speed rail funds is virtually assured acceptance by the Department of Transportation. If its proposal and California’s, at $4.7 billion, are chosen for full grants, that leaves $700 million for the rest of the country. That is, until the U.S. Congress expands its commitment to high-speed rail by dedicating $1 billion or more for the mode in the annual transportation appropriations process, a decision expected to be made early next year with the support of strong majorities in both houses.

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