In the White House’s High-Speed Rail Chase, a First Likely Winner: Florida

The prediction that Rep. John Mica (R-FL) backtracked on last month is starting to come true: President Obama is headed for Florida on Thursday, and the state is all but certain that he’s coming with $2.6 billion in federal stimulus funding for a new high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando.

The state envisions an 85-mile Tampa-Orlando link as the first phase in a network of bullet trains that would eventually reach as far south as Miami (see picture at left).

And the state’s dream is years in the making; an environmental impact study of the Tampa-Orlando route was completed in 2005, and Florida has already acquired a dedicated right-of-way along the I-4 corridor with an estimated worth of $100 billion.

Even Orlando’s resident corporate giant, Disney, came out in favor of the rail plan last fall.

As railroad expert and veteran reporter Mark Reutter notes in a highly readable high-speed rail briefing paper [PDF] for the Progressive Policy Institute:

We believe this line should serve as a demonstration project that showcases state-of-the-art technology and proves the viability of fast trains not only to Florida residents but to the millions of Americans who visit Orlando and Tampa yearly.

The state’s planned route would include stops in the Lakeland area and the Orlando airport, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, with trains expected to begin running by 2014. In addition to the anticipated federal contribution, private investors are being wooed for an extra $1 billion, putting the total cost of Florida’s first high-speed rail project at about $3.5 billion.

Politically speaking, the White House’s decision to bestow rail money on a swing state — and one where legislators have fought intense partisan battles over new high-speed trains — is a sound one. As the Herald-Tribune notes, there also may be a slight side benefit for the state’s marquee Senate race if Gov. Charlie Crist (R), facing a conservative primary challenger, ends up a no-show at Thursday’s announcement.

A $2.5 billion grant to Florida also leaves $8 billion left for the Obama team to apportion to other promising rail proposals, including those in the midwest and California. (Last year’s economic stimulus law approved the first $8 billion for bullet trains, with another $2.5 billion added by Congress in December.)

But as Yonah Freemark observed in July, the price of Florida’s high-speed rail victory may be paid over time by residents of the Tampa-Orlando area. Without a link to downtown Orlando, the rail network’s potential to promote dense, mixed-use development near its various stations could be significantly diminished.

  • jim

    Seems likely. The timing is right: it’s very likely the tech panels completed their work by Christmas (I’d have hated to chair a panel that didn’t — what do you do? Force them to work through the holiday season or try to get them back on Jan 4th into the same mindset they had on Dec 23rd?). So the last three weeks the FRA staff has been coming up with alternative allocations, trying to respect the panel scores but with differing degrees of geographic balance and direction to areas with really horrendous unemployment rather than just bad unemployment, while adding up to $8B.

    They have to choose between the applications they have, not the applications they might wish to have. For actual 150mph+ HSR, there were only the two states applying: CA and FL. The CA applications didn’t actually result in complete operational lines and the one that came closest, LA-Anaheim, is only 30 miles long. And none of the CA applications had their NEPA work complete. The FL application is three times the length of LA-Anaheim, can turn dirt as soon as it gets money and will actually result in running trains by 2014. It might not be perfect, but it’s better than the alternatives.

    Since the announcement is being made in FL, one can assume that CA gets less than FL, which is not good news for CHSRA.

  • M

    I’m afraid this will be a big failure. A 3-4 billion dollar train that dumps people off in the middle of a highway 20+ miles away from any city center?! Who’s idea was that?! Florida towns were founded along rail lines, think Flagler, Plant at the end of the 19th century. The existing rail corridors are there, through every small town. If those were improved, it would cost a lot less, more people would ride, and it would be a boost to the local main street’s all along the route. If this train does get built as planned it will, fail, and the reputation of rail will be tarnished for years to come. So let this be a lesson to all transit advocates across the country. Be careful what you wish for.

  • Exador

    How about just getting Amtrak to work? Do we really need to go 150+ MPH when we are only going 60-70 in our cars?

  • MAT

    Next up, the Empire Corridor connecting Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany to the existing high(er) speed line between Albany and New York City. Why is this important? Well, not only is Upstate New York one of the most economically-distressed regions in the nation, but it is home to a vast supply chain for the rail industry, has a proven strong working relationship with Amtrak, connects downtowns to downtowns, and (long-term) will provide a high speed link between Toronto and New York City – the two most important financial centers of North America.

  • Oklahoma’s application also includes 150 plus mile per hour operation on dedicated track. The state proposes to build a new line on the north side of the Turner Turnpike/Interstate 44.

    For comparison, census figures estimate 1.34 million person trips a year between Oklahoma City and Tulsa and .88 million between Orlando and Tampa. Granted Florida has Disney and that census number wouldn’t include MCO airport-Disney.

    Not saying one is better than the other, just providing context.

  • jim

    Do we really need to go 150+ MPH when we are only going 60-70 in our cars? Speak for yourself.

    But the question is a good one. In fact, most of the other applications were for “better Amtrak:” more trains, better time-keeping, faster, but along existing Amtrak routes (perhaps with slight modification). Upgrade existing track to support higher speeds (but not above 110 mph, which is the fastest existing Amtrak diesel locomotives can go), add more trackage within the existing right of way so more trains can fit and faster passenger trains can pass slower freights and close the most dangerous at-grade crossings. This is massively cheaper than 150mph+ in dedicated RoW. For less than FRA is likely to give Florida for 85 miles of genuine HSR, FRA could fund all of Wisconsin’s Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago, Michigan’s Chicago-Detroit and Illinois’s Chicago-St. Louis as well as Illinois’s proposal to grade-separate a major passenger route from a heavy freight route within Chicago. When “Southeastern High Speed Rail” (which is actually just Virgina and North Carolina; South Carolina and Georgia aren’t playing) was being defined, they went for better Amtrak because, in the words of the then head of NCDOT, “We get 90% of the functionality for 10% of the cost.” The total cost, as defined in the HSIPR applications, for Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte, about 500 miles, is $6.5B, eminently fundable. The tradeoff, wwhat they lose, is that people going from one end to the other, between Charlotte and Washington, will have a five and a half to six hour ride. USAir, when it actually manages to take off, will be faster and probably cheaper. But there are few potential riders end-to-end. Most riders from Charlotte are going to the Triad or Triangle; most riders from the Triangle are going to the Triad, Charlotte or Richmond; most riders from Richmond are going to Washington or Raleigh. Charlotte-Greensboro will be about an hour, Charlotte-Raleigh or Raleigh-Richmond, two hours, Washington-Richmond, a bit over 90 minutes. These are acceptable numbers.

    So why is California going with the expensive option? It has a different ridership profile. Most potential riders are traveling between Northern and Southern California. Riders from Los Angeles are going to San Francisco, not Bakersfield. Riders from San Francisco are going to Los Angeles, not Stockton. And six hours SF-LA won’t cut it.

    The US is large, it contains multitudes. One size does not fit all. There are at least two ways of getting to faster rail service. There is a lot of debate between the partisans of each. One may hope that FRA will not take sides.

  • “The tradeoff, wwhat they lose, is that people going from one end to the other, between Charlotte and Washington, will have a five and a half to six hour ride. USAir, when it actually manages to take off, will be faster and probably cheaper. But there are few potential riders end-to-end. Most riders from Charlotte are going to the Triad or Triangle; most riders from the Triangle are going to the Triad, Charlotte or Richmond; most riders from Richmond are going to Washington or Raleigh. Charlotte-Greensboro will be about an hour, Charlotte-Raleigh or Raleigh-Richmond, two hours, Washington-Richmond, a bit over 90 minutes.”

    Maybe, maybe not. The real upshot of SEHSR is that it will relieve the Carolinian of overcrowding when it comes to daytime Charlotte-D.C. travel. Based on my understanding, some of the SEHSR trains will actually serve as express trains in NC and VA, skipping smaller cities.

    Under this scenario, Charlotte, Greensboro, Durham, Cary, and Raleigh would be the only stops served along the Piedmont Corridor. Since the main SE line and the Carolinian diverge in Raleigh, passengers traveling to or from the five aforementioned cities would be diverted off #79 and #80 and unto either Piedmont or Express trains if they need to travel locally or to Petersburg and points north. As a result, the Carolinian would be able to add space for not only NEC-bound passengers, but for eastern NC travelers as well.

  • Nathanael

    Sure, the Orlando end is a disaster of misdesign, failing to reach downtown Orlando, landing on the far side of the Disney zone, and failing to connect with the planned SunRail.

    But the Tampa end is well-designed, and Tampa is stepping up to the plate to improve its local services. It should be good for Tampa!

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