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

Australia Commuter Rail Gold Coast Australia Kansas City Light Rail Metro Rail Sydney

Kansas City Abandons Light Rail; Australian Rapid Transit Projects In Development

Kansas City abandons light rail for regional commuter systemProposed Kansas City Light Rail Map

In November, Kansas City voters abandoned hope for a light rail system by a 44-56% margin. There had been several efforts over the past few years to build a variety of lines, led by community organizer Clay Chastain, who in 2006 won an endorsement from voters for a 27-mile rail system to run throughout the city. In 2008, however, the city council decided on a $1 billion 14-mile north-south line (shown in the plan to the right) that would be sponsored by a 3/8¢ sales tax; voters obviously weren’t interested.

But now the area’s Regional Transit Alliance has decided to replace its light rail plan with a commuter rail system that would run using diesel locomotives on existing tracks. The Kansas City Star reports that Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders sees the commuter rail system as more ambitious than the previous light rail plan:

“If we’re going to have a mass transit plan, it needs to be regional so that we move the largest number of people where they want to go… Bigger is better.”

The irony of Mr. Sanders’ statement is that while an investment in commuter rail may provide longer lines spreading further out into the region, it would also almost certainly mean fewer riders. The fact is that commuter rail systems, usually running at inconvenient frequencies and stopping at stations more likely to be surrounded by parking than dense housing, do not attract the kind of patronage that a game-changing light rail network would. And while commuter rail would improve the mobility of a small number of the region’s suburb-to-downtown commuters, it wouldn’t help much in getting people in the inner city around.

Perhaps it is true that the population in Kansas City is spread out enough that citizens of the region are unwilling to agree to a sales tax for a central city-only light rail network, but the commuter rail network for which they might settle will change the travel habits of fewer people than a light rail system would have.

Australian rapid transit projects – in the Gold Coast and in Sydney – up in the air because of Labor-Liberal political controversies

The Gold Coast, Australia’s sixth-largest city located just south of Brisbane in Queensland, is planning a 17-km light rail transit system that would run north-south along the city’s trademark coast and then west to the Pacific Motorway. The city is increasingly dense along the waterfront but lacks any major mass transit option. The project has been supported by Australia’s ruling center-left Labor Party, but recently the coalition of the conservative Liberal and National Parties that controls Queensland has veered back and forth about whether to support the project, putting its construction into jeopardy.

The problem is that neither the national government nor the Queensland state have indicated the appropriate willingness to direct the necessary hundreds of millions of Australian dollars that would be necessary to get the light rail line built, even though everyone seems to agree that the Gold Coast is in desperate need of alternative transport options.

In Sydney, a similar situation is playing out. Late last year, the New South Wales government announced that it would fund the construction of a $4.8 billion new CBD subway in the city’s downtown area. The project would begin construction in 2010 and be completed by 2015. Now that the state government has begun property acquisitions, however, some local Sydney politicians have expressed their discontent about the project’s massive price, suggesting that a better use of the funds would be in an expansion of the city’s light rail network. The national government, however, sees the CBD subway as the first stage of a massive new metro system that would run to the Northwest quadrant of the city and provide much-needed traffic relief.

As of now, both projects remain funded but obstacles are likely to stand in their way in the future.

Image above: Kansas City Light Rail network plan (abandoned), from

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

Bay Area Bus Commuter Rail Light Rail Los Angeles Milwaukee Portland Streetcar

Portland WES Opens; BART Signs up for Wi-Fi; L.A. Gold Line Nears Completion; Milwaukee Studies Streetcar

Portland’s Westside Express Service Begins Operations TodayPortland Westside Express Service

The Tri-Met WES, which is a 14.7-mile commuter rail line from Beaverton to Wilsonville in Portland’s western suburbs, will open today for its first commuters. The project allows diesel multiple unit trains to run the route in less than 30 minutes, stop at three new intermediate stations, and connect to MAX light rail service in Beaverton. What’s perhaps most exciting about the service is that it will offer free Wi-Fi in trains, something no other commuter rail service offers in the country making it the second commuter rail line in the country to offer such a service.

WES hasn’t been without its problems, however. Tri-Met had to acquire Colorado Railcar, the equipment maker, to prevent it from going belly-up before the trains had been built. And WES won’t be providing the best service in the world, either. It’s a commuter line, not designed for carefree use, and it will only run every thirty minutes between 5:30 and 10 am in the mornings and 3:30 to 7 pm in evenings, only on weekdays.

Tri-Met expects 4,600 daily riders by 2020, though with such limited service, one wonders whether or not that’s a realistic estimate.

BART Expects to Have Wi-Fi on Trains by 2011

WES won’t be the only system in the country (of two) with mobile internet access, however, if BART has its way. The heavy rail system serving San Francisco and the Bay Area has signed a contract with Wi-Fi Rail, Inc. to provide for wireless internet use along the entire system within three years. The company will hold the contract for 20 years.

The system is currently being tested in the downtown San Francisco stations and will work even when trains reach their maximum speeds of 80 mph. Though that service is being provided for free, eventually users will be charged to use their computers and smartphones on the trains if they want to use the internet for more than three and a half minutes (including 30 seconds of ads). Charges for subscribers will be about $6 for two hours, $9 a day, $30 a month, and $300 a year, a good deal for commuters but terrible for everyone else.

L.A. Gold Line Extension Almost Ready for Service

Los Angeles is just months away from the opening of its newest light rail line, the $900 million Gold Line extension from downtown’s Union Station to East L.A. The 6-mile-long project has been under construction since 2004 and includes a significant tunnel under Boyle Heights. It is to be opened for riders later this year, though a specific date has not yet been set because the project is coming in early and below budget.

Now comes news that the entire track has been completed and that a light rail train has been pushed along the system successfully. The tracks will be tested over the next several months to ensure safety for riders.

Milwaukee Considering whether to Invest in Streetcars or Express Buses

Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, is considering how to invest in its transit future with the Milwaukee Connector study. A series of meetings will be held this month to get citizen input in the potential improves in mass transit, which may provide service along the following corridors:

  • A streetcar within downtown Milwaukee
  • Bus rapid transit from downtown north to the University of Wisconsin; west to the Milwaukee County Research Park; northwest to Midtown Center; and south to the airport
  • Bus rapid transit from Bayshore Town Center south along 27th Street to Northwestern Mutual Franklin Campus

The team wants to apply for a Federal Transit Administration Small Starts grant, which goes for projects worth less than $250 million, so the study will focus in on how that money could be best used. The city currently has $91 million in federal transportation dollars at its disposal and the Small Starts grant could provide another $75 million if the city’s application is successful.

But there’s some controversy about what mode of transit would best suit the city. Whereas Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has suggested the best possible use of money would be in bus lanes, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has campaigned for a downtown streetcar and fewer bus lines. The study will help gauge citizen interest and preferences.

Image above: WES Colorado Railcar Train, from Tri-Met

Commuter Rail Connecticut

Metro-North Considering Upgrades to Waterbury and New Canaan Branches

Metro-North Railroad is the United States’ third-largest commuter rail agency in ridership, with almost 300,000 daily trips, providing service from New York City to suburban New York State and Connecticut counties. Metro-North’s Connecticut service, along the New Haven Line, includes the main line, from New York to New Haven, as well as three branches, to New Canaan, Danbury, and Waterbury. Metro-North is already considering upgrades (including electrification) and an expansion to its Danbury route.

But the Hartford Courant reports today that the State Department of Transportation is also considering upgrades to the New Canaan and Waterbury branches. The Waterbury Branch, which was close to abandonment just a decade ago, has seen some remarkable increases in ridership recently, though its daily rider count falls somewhere in the 200-300 person range, nothing compared to the more than 100,000 the New Haven Line carries every day as a whole. Nor can the state fund more trains along the route: because it is entirely single-tracked and lacks signals, only one train can use the 29-mile route at a time, significantly slowing operations. The 8-mile New Canaan Branch, with about 3,000 daily riders, is far more heavily used, but it too has been left in disrepair for years and needs upgrades.

The state’s planning process will take up to three years to consider all possible alternatives, which could include expanding service from the existing Waterbury terminus to Berlin and even Hartford. We’re almost always in favor of expanding and integrating the nation’s intercity rail networks, so this seems like a good project to us.