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

Bus Light Rail Tampa

Tampa Outlines Plan for Spending After Transit Tax Referendum

» Shorter airport line could be built exclusively with local funds, serving as a down-payment for a future demand of federal funds to pay for a corridor to University of South Florida.

Though Florida is late to join the light rail-bandwagon — none of its cities have yet developed modern networks — Tampa’s leadership is pushing to get the technology on the ground and running as quickly as possible. Promoting a vision for a major transit corridor, local leadership has succeeded in placing a referendum on a tax increase on this November’s ballot. If the proposal passes the voters’ muster, the city could have light rail in five years.

Tampa is hoping to begin construction on a short stretch of light rail to the airport with its own funds. It will ask the federal government to chip in later for a future project bringing the service to the northeast.

Politicians from Tampa and Hillsborough County (which encompasses it and a number of surrounding municipalities) have been beating the drum for an improved public transportation system for more than a year. In November 2009, the Hillsborough County board succeeded in pushing a 1¢ sales tax measure to the ballot this year. In addition, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has been one of the nation’s biggest advocates of light rail technology.

If passed, the sales tax increase would be split among a variety of transportation modes. Highway projects will receive 25% of funds, 43% will go to the capital costs of the light rail line, and 32% is expected to go directly to the immediate ramp-up of operations along existing bus routes. The latter amount would be enough to double current transit offerings; that’s big news for bus riders today and in the future. The tax will produce about $180 million a year in direct revenues.

Though HART, the local transit agency, had a number of corridors under consideration for funding when it began a federally required alternatives analysis, it has reduced its consideration to just two: A northeast line running from downtown to the New Tampa, via Ybor City and the University of South Florida and a west line extending from downtown to the airport. Both would link up with the proposed Florida High-Speed Rail terminus station, part of a system that is mostly funded and likely to be up and running in the mid-2010s.

The complete corridor, if ever constructed, could extend 25.6 to 27 miles and cost between $1.775 and $2.225 billion; 20,000 to 26,000 daily riders are expected to use the line. Though bus rapid transit is also being considered in the agency’s analysis — and would come in at a cheaper cost, though with a lower expected ridership — Mayor Iorio’s insistence that the project be built as light rail will not be ignored when the preferred local corridor is chosen.

Exact route alignments will not be determined until after the November election because of the timing of the alternatives analysis study.

Plans formulated last year suggested that the northeast route could be built by 2018 with the aid of federal New Starts major capital projects funds. Wanting to get the project on the ground as quickly as feasible, however, local leaders are now suggesting that the route from downtown to the airport be prioritized, since it could be built entirely with local funds alone by 2015 thanks to a relatively short corridor. Avoiding the difficult New Starts process could speed up results.

This is an innovative approach that has been used by a few other places, including Salt Lake City. Tampa will argue that its local spending on the airport line should count against future investment in the northeast line and thereby suggest that the federal government assume a larger percentage of costs for the latter project. This wouldn’t save Tampa any costs in the long run, but it would allow the city to proceed more quickly in actually getting this system into the ground.

Though I am typically skeptical of airport links because they tend to serve only a small clientele, the argument that a limited investment in one project could eventually leverage much greater spending on a more important investment seems an acceptable rationale for moving forward with it. In addition, unlike some airport authorities, those in Tampa have been vocal advocates of this program.

Nonetheless, Hillsborough County officials should ensure that the federal government will be willing to make the funding deal with them if they are to spend hundreds of millions first on the airport line. The connection between downtown and the University of South Florida will attract more riders and reinforce development in the historic Ybor City neighborhood, which deserves a better link to downtown and could benefit from an interface with the existing TECO line streetcar.

In addition, Tampa officials need to think seriously about how the two routes — to the west and the northeast — will connect once they reach downtown. Will they through-run, only providing direct service to the proposed high-speed rail station, not the downtown core? Or will they both run directly into the core, forcing riders wanting to get from Ybor City to the airport to transfer? These questions should be answered before the region decides to move ahead with the construction of one of the rail network’s lines.

Image above: Rough proposed light rail route for Tampa, from HART

Bay Area Bus Elections Light Rail Los Angeles Tampa

The Politics of Mode Choice

» Choice of transportation mode for new transit capital projects is often just as much a reflection of politics as it is a statement of “objective” technological benefits.

Would it be an indictment of the political system to suggest that most political leaders making decisions about what kind of technology to use in new transit corridors simply don’t care about the relative merits of various transportation modes? If someone were to develop a definitive formula that established, once and for all, the most appropriate technology for any possible corridor, would it matter?

I raise these questions because when put it in the context of actual decision-making by politicians in the United States, the seemingly endless debate between proponents of rail and buses can sometimes appear downright irrelevant.

Bus rapid transit may provide the same capacity as light rail or light rail may be more effective in producing ridership increases or busways may be cheaper to construct or trains may be better transit-oriented development generators. But if there isn’t significant political support for a transportation technology, it doesn’t matter; the only proposals that are built are those that capture the hearts of the people who decide how public funds are spent.

Last week Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, her region’s biggest cheerleader for better transit, suggested that for new transportation routes, “Bus rapid transit is not acceptable.” The regional transportation agency HART has yet to determine whether it will promote light rail or faster buses for one of the many potential corridors for better transit service. But the Mayor’s statement, backed up by similar nods of approval for trains by HART President David Armijo, suggests that the only politically feasible option is light rail. When voters in the Tampa region go to the polls on November 2nd to determine whether to increase their sales taxes, they will be considering whether to fund rail, not just any sort of improved transit.

On the other hand, up in Maryland, Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Governor Robert Ehrlich Jr. has suggested that he would replace the current (Democratic) governor’s plans for light rail in Baltimore and suburban Washington, D.C. with bus rapid transit projects. Mr. Ehrlich has cited what he claims are the cheaper costs of bus investments, an opinion that may have more to do with reorienting transportation funding towards highways but which still could point towards efficiency in spending, important for any government program.

There are plenty of seemingly reasonable explanations for the rock-hard support of both Ms. Iorio and Mr. Ehrlich for their preferred transit technologies, but the fact is that their statements in favor of one mode or the other are based on emotional responses, not some kind of well thought-through assessment of their communities’ specific needs.

For many politicians in the United States, light rail has attained something of a mythical status, and they’ve been able to transfer the excitement about the mode to their constituents, as proven by the recent proliferation of successfully passed transit sales tax increases usually founded on the assumptions that trains are coming. There’s some good logic to this fact: Trains are sexy and different: For metropolitan areas used to only bus operations, light rail is appealing to the popular imagination in a way that bus rapid transit is simply not because of its similarity to existing services. Even if it is possible to imagine bus lines that are just as performing as light rail, it is hard to communicate that potential to the average person before a vote.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s successful campaign to advance the Measure R tax increase in 2008 and now his 30/10 transit plan, both of whose products will primarily be new rail lines, is arguably founded on both general enthusiasm for rail services in L.A. and the coinciding promise that the plan will bring those offerings to everywhere in the region. Similarly, the increase in local taxes to fund the extension of the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART rapid transit system into San Jose was endorsed by more than two-thirds of voters in the 2008 election cycle, likely because of the emotional appeal people in the area hold for the BART rail system. There are cheaper and arguably more appropriate alternatives, like a bus rapid transit line or an improvement of commuter rail services in the East Bay, but they weren’t considered because of a lack of political will to advance their development.

The fundamental question for proponents of better transit stuck asking themselves what transportation technology to support is this: Is it more important to argue for a mode that is more technically efficient or one that is emotionally appealing? Could Mayor Villaraigosa have found enough support for his plan had it promoted a series of busways? Is Mayor Iorio’s argument in favor of light rail a response to her recognition that only it will be exciting enough to appeal to voters?

More directly: If it is necessary to intrigue both politicians and the public about a new transit system in order to get it funded, the necessary corollary must sometimes be choosing the wrong transportation mode from a technical perspective in order to satisfy political demands.

All this said, I do not want to imply that the continued discussion about what transportation modes work best is a silly matter; if anything, more research is necessary to answer the questions that continue to enliven debates about the various benefits of different types of transit. If planners can demonstrate conclusively that light rail really does produce higher ridership and more transit-oriented development than bus rapid transit, then they have an obligation to push for its implementation. If, on the other hand, they can show that bus rapid transit can provide all the benefits of light rail at a lower price, then they must do the opposite.

But planners will only be able to make their argument effectively if they are able to frame it in terms that are appealing for the people who control the public’s purse strings, both in the voting booth and behind the mayor’s desk.

Light Rail Tampa

Tampa Bay Closer to Getting Light Rail

Recommended Tampa Bay Area Light Rail System» Sales tax would have to be approved by voters next year.

Yesterday, Hillsborough County Commissioners advanced their efforts to build a light rail transit system for Florida’s Tampa Bay area, agreeing to consider whether to place a one cent sales tax on the ballot. If Commissioners vote as expected on December 2nd, county voters will choose in November 2010 whether to increase taxes on themselves. The revenue source, if approved, would pay for a new light rail line, though it would also support road and bus improvements.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is the area’s primary light rail proponent — she claims to be unwilling to accept anything other than that transport mode — though the system as currently envisioned would connect several places outside of the city to downtown. First on the list, ready by 2018, would be a line from the University of South Florida to downtown, either to Union Station or to the future high-speed rail stop; that link would be followed shortly thereafter by a connection to West Shore. By 2035, with a funding base, links east to Brandon, north to New Tampa, south to South Tampa, and west to Town ‘N Country could be in place. All in all, the system could eventually offer 40 miles of track.

What makes Tampa Bay’s light rail project unusual is that it has been developed after an intense effort to advance regional cooperation. The local Metropolitan Planning Organization incorporated the rail project into its long-term plans and has completely reversed course in favor of transit funding; current spending is tilted 83% to highways, while the long-term plan, with almost $12 billion in expenditures earmarked by 2035, provides for a 50-50 split between transit and roads. Hillsborough County, meanwhile,  assembled a transportation task force in 2006 to develop a revenue source for the system and to prioritize certain routes.

Working in parallel, the state legislature formed the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) in 2007 to coordinate transportation expenditures in seven counties — a process that has resulted in general regional consensus that light rail is an appropriate investment. TBARTA’s vision for a future regional rail system is even broader than that suggested by the MPO, with lines spewing out to Saratoga Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Largo, Clearwater, and Wesley Chapel. It’s unclear how a system of that size will ever be funded; after all, though a new sales tax will provide some revenue, it won’t be enough to pay for all this construction and the huge operations bill that the county will receive once light rail is on the ground.

HART, the local transit authority, has been the primary actor in conducting the alternatives analysis for the first stage of the system, a necessary step if Tampa is to receive federal New Starts grant money for the line. That process will be complete in the spring of next year, in time for voters to consider what exactly they’ll be paying for with their new taxes. HART currently operates the county’s bus system, which serves a small 37,000 riders a day, as well as the TECO streetcar line, an 800-daily-passenger restored tourist trolley that runs 2.3 miles through Tampa’s downtown and Ybor City districts.

With so much cooperation and practical political unanimity in favor of the light rail project, you’d expect voters to approve the sales tax increase, just as have similar populations in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Charlotte in recent electoral cycles. A vision of a broad-reaching plan, with lines extending everywhere, may be the best way to push the project, since it will convince more of the population that the rail system will be relevant to their lives when it’s built. However, presenting the image above, for instance, could be disingenuous; experience in Miami and Denver suggests that sales tax revenues don’t go as far as proponents initially claim. This seems especially true for this project, since Tampa will be spending much of the money on roads and bus improvements as well as the light rail project. Alternatively, presenting a map of just the first stage — from South Florida University to West Shore, via downtown — would be a disaster, since that corridor would be of interest to only about 20% of the area’s population. Voters are rarely interested in paying for a project that will help someone else.

Tampa faces serious obstacles to implementation even if the tax is passed. The transportation task force suggests that the state of Florida would chip in 25% of costs, and that the federal government would add another 50% through the New Starts process, with just 25% coming from local sales tax revenues. But how serious is the Sunshine State about its local transit systems? It has been inept in allocating funds to Orlando’s SunRail, despite that project’s receipt of a New Starts commitment earlier this year. Can it really be trusted for that 25% share?

Meanwhile, Washington may not find this proposal particularly compelling. HART’s small number of existing riders indicates that even a nice rail system would attract few users, meaning that, compared to many other projects around the country, the cost-effectiveness of a Tampa line would be weak. Tampa’s low densities are primarily to blame, but the city has done little to increase infill construction along the proposed transit corridors. From where will the riders come?

But the degree to which regional cooperation has advanced in the Tampa Bay area is remarkable and suggests that a light rail line is more than a fantasy. Local politicians truly want to get this project built, even if they still have a long way yet to go.

Image above: Planned Tampa Bay Light Rail Network, from Hillsborough County Transportation Task Force