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