Image via WikipediaThis Week at Amtrak; December 8, 2009
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA
Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail firstname.lastname@example.org • http://www.unitedrail.org
Volume 6, Number 49
Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, New York, and other cities. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at http://www.unitedrail.org.
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1) Finally, at last, after waiting oh, so very long (Too long, in fact.), SunRail, the 61 mile long commuter rail system in Central Florida serving the Metropolitan Orlando area is about to be a reality.
Just hours ago, the Florida Senate, meeting in a special session, passed HR 1, a bill to create SunRail and to also permanently fund South Florida’s Tri-Rail system.
Life is good.
SunRail had failed twice before in the Florida Senate, two years in a row in the legislature’s regular annual sessions. The Florida House each time overwhelmingly passed the proposal, but a spiteful state Senator from the small city of Lakeland, Senator Paula Dockery, did her best to kill SunRail because she was mad her husband’s original, too-expensive, ill-advised bullet train scheme was made to go away by former Governor Jeb Bush almost a decade ago.
In a rare change of places in politics, the Republicans were pushing for SunRail, and the Democrats were mostly against it. Senator Dockery, who is now running for governor in next year’s state elections, is also a Republican.
Overall, SunRail had bipartisan support on many fronts, but the trial lawyers were originally against it because the original bill protected CSX, which is selling the track and infrastructure to the State of Florida for hundreds of millions of dollars wanted reasonable risk protection for any freight trains it would continue to run in off-hours when SunRail wasn’t running between Deland, a far northern suburb of Orlando in Volusia County (near Daytona Beach), through the heart of downtown Orlando via Sanford (home of Auto Train’s southern terminus), Casselberry, Longwood, and Winter Park all the way down to Poinciana, to the southwest of Orlando, near the theme park area of Orlando (Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal Studios).
There was a fuss by the unions, who claimed the Republican-ruled State of Florida government was union-busting. At the last moment, they came to an agreement through some sort of backroom deal, and the unions relented and allowed the Democrats to vote for SunRail.
But, mostly, for the first two years, SunRail failed because of one Senator, Paula Dockery. She used every piece of disinformation and distortion she could find to kill SunRail out of spite, and she cut deals with as many other senators as she could on unrelated topics to buy their votes in her favor. It took the untimely death of a longtime Senator from here in Jacksonville, who supported the concept of SunRail, but voted against it due to a deal cut with Senator Dockery, for the bill to finally pass. The dearly departed Senator’s elected replacement was one of the chief paid lobbyists for SunRail the previous year, so his vote was an automatic “yes.”
In the end, it all came down to politics and perception. SunRail was touted as a job creator (no doubt about that), and it was touted as a budget buster, taking money out of the mouths of babes and education opportunities away from school children, not to mention all of the alleged hospitals and clinics which wouldn’t be built because of the cost of SunRail.
It was only when the Republican majority in the Florida Senate realized it wouldn’t be prudent to go against the Republican President of the Senate and the Republican Governor that some sense came into focus.
In the mean time, United States Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to Florida earlier this year and made it very, very clear if SunRail was not approved, and a funding source found for Tri-Rail, then Florida would be completely out of the running for any federal stimulus funds to build the proposed high speed rail routes in Florida. Added to Secretary LaHood’s admonishment were similar dire warnings from Republican Senator George LeMieux and Democratic Senator Bill Nelson (of NASA and space travel fame), as well as a varied assortment of Members of Congress.
So, no matter how good the plan, how good the plan is for the citizens of Florida and Central Florida’s tens of millions of annual visitors from around the world, it all came down to a few votes and a lot of political pressure.
Is that any way to run a railroad?
2) Here is who will benefit from the SunRail/Tri-Rail bill:
– The majority of SunRail will run fairly parallel to Interstate 4, the main highway through the very middle of downtown Orlando. Interstate 4 is best described as a slow moving parking lot any time between 7:00 A.M. and about 8:00 P.M., and if there is a wreck, well, don’t plan on being home for dinner on time.
As with all commuter rail systems, the sudden appearance of commuter trains will do nothing to alleviate traffic congestion; you couldn’t run enough trains with a two minute headway on a triple track mainline to take care of Central Florida’s driving problems. The benefit of SunRail is it will provide a reasonably priced, reasonable time alternative to driving on Interstate and surface roads, so almost every commuter in and out of downtown Orlando or commuters traveling from one side of Metropolitan Orlando to another will have the opportunity to take the train and possibly benefit.
– The Orange Blossom Expressway, a second proposed commuter rail system in Central Florida will also benefit. This much smaller system will connect in downtown Orlando with SunRail, coming from far suburban counties to the north of Orlando. This system will travel over rails currently owned by a short line railroad. The start of SunRail could prompt this feeder system to get off the ground faster.
– Everyone in the engineering and related fields, plus many in the construction industry will benefit, almost immediately.
SunRail is probably one of the projects which is actually “shovel ready” and will have a relatively short construction window before beginning service. The current CSX infrastructure is excellent, and it won’t take much to upgrade what is already there to make it commuter-system ready. There will be some double tracking required, and the construction of local stations will take place, but none of those are years-long projects, especially with the year-round, construction friendly warm climate of Central Florida.
– CSX will hugely benefit; it’s selling 61 miles worth of infrastructure it currently pays taxes on to the State of Florida for over $400 million, and it still gets to run as many freight trains as it wants over the tracks in off hours for – are you ready for this? – $1.00 a year (Yes, one dollar.).
Additionally, CSX gets more tens of millions of dollars to upgrade the former Seaboard Air Line Railroad main line through Ocala to divert trains from the former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad main line through Orlando it is selling to the State of Florida for SunRail. The money for diverting the traffic will go to more infrastructure improvements on the old SAL line such as grade crossings, more sidings, better signaling, and the construction of several highway and road overpasses in congested areas.
CSX will also build a brand new Intermodal facility southwest of Orlando in Polk County, abandoning its older, smaller, more expensive to operate facility in Orlando that is currently on the SunRail route. The upgraded CSX/SAL line via Ocala will handle the diverted traffic from Orlando and the old Intermodal facility and take it all to the new facility.
– Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade Counties, the host counties of Tri-Rail, will all benefit from this legislation. In lieu of the desired $2.00 per day surcharge (A nice synonym for “tax.”) on rental cars in each of the three counties, excess state transportation funds will be used for Tri-Rail. Each of the three counties will still contribute to Tri-Rail finances on an annual basis, but the three counties will not be solely responsible for funding the commuter rail system.
This will also most likely clear the way for a huge expansion of Tri-Rail into a “Y” shaped system. The former inland SAL main line Tri-Rail now calls home parallels – in some cases just by a matter of city blocks – the current main line of the Florida East Coast Railroad, a private subsidiary of RailAmerica, based here in Jacksovnille. The FEC for years has been hoping for a similar deal CSX received over two decades ago to sell its track and infrastructure to an expanded Tri-Rail system, while retaining similar rights as CSX has to run over Tri-Rail in off hours.
As with CSX, the FEC would be relieved of the tax burden of ownership and the costs of maintenance and insurance on about 75 or so miles of very expensive, urban track and infrastructure if Tri-Rail buys its line from the north of West Palm Beach (Around Jupiter, Florida.), south all the way into downtown Miami.
Since Henry Flagler and the FEC in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were the original builders of all of the East Coast of Florida south of St. Augustine for all practical purposes, the FEC line has a superior route through the middle of downtowns and urban areas than the old SAL line which was not completed into South Florida until the Florida Land Boom in the 1920s. The FEC had all of the downtowns and track which hugged the South Florida beaches, and the Seaboard was forced to build further to the west in the suburbs and swamplands on the edge of the Florida Everglades south of West Palm Beach where the line swung east from its route through Winter Haven, Sebring, and skirting Lake Okeechobee.
Tri-Rail plans to keep its current system, and add trackage to the north and south of West Palm Beach on the FEC (The same trackage which is part of Amtrak’s high speed rail proposal for Florida vying for part of the $8 billion in stimulus money to be awarded later this Winter.).
– Every other proposed commuter rail system in the country will benefit from the passage of the SunRail bill because from the beginning, the bill has been a model of rational, reasonable planning, with no pie-in-the-sky ridership figures, too conservative costs, or too extravagant revenue figures. SunRail was conceived and planned using real world numbers and real world expectations. Like the Northstar system in Minneapolis, and the Trinity system in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, SunRail most likely will exceed expectations on opening day.
The deal struck with CSX, similar to the deal the Commonwealth of Massachusetts struck with CSX to expand its state commuter system outside of Boston, most likely will become a model for all future deals with CSX, which is good. CSX will receive huge benefits from the deal, which is to be expected as CSX acts on behalf of its shareholders. While CSX will benefit, the public will also benefit in any number of ways, not the least of which is access to private railroad infrastructure CSX has no duty to share with anyone else it doesn’t choose to do business with on any particular day. But, both the SunRail and Massachusetts projects demonstrate how everyone can win, and life goes on with everyone benefitting.
– Amtrak will greatly benefit from SunRail; it will have the benefit of the upgraded infrastructure necessary for SunRail, plus the upgraded shared station facilities, and more friendly dispatching since there will be very little freight train activity south of Jacksonville (Where ALL freight trains came into Florida to be funneled south into Florida’s peninsula) on the former ACL line/now SunRail line for 61 miles in Central Florida. For about 210 miles from Jacksonville to the Auburndale cutoff where Amtrak trains turn from the former ACL line onto the former SAL line for the run into Miami, Amtrak trains should have a mostly clear shot of clean dispatching with very little freight train interference. This could lead to a shortening of Florida schedules since the northbound Silver Meteor and Silver usually arrive into Jacksonville ahead of schedule.
Another benefit to Amtrak will be a heightened awareness of passenger rail travel by the commuters on SunRail; passenger-train-aware people are more likely to be receptive to long distance train travel. Hopefully, Amtrak will make the most of this by heavily promoting Amtrak trains at commuter stations.
– U.S. Railcar, which is now the proud owner of the former Colorado Railcar designs for both single and bi-level commuter trains should benefit greatly from today’s vote. The original plan, when Colorado Railcar was still a viable company, called for that company’s DMUs to provide all of the motive power and consists for SunRail, and it’s highly likely any expansion of Tri-Rail in South Florida will also use these same DMUs which have undergone field tests on Tri-Rail in the past few years. Perhaps this will help U.S. Railcar with its request for a federal grant to construct a factory in Ohio to build these self-propelled railcars.
– Transportation planners in Jacksonville to the northeast of Central Florida, and in the Tampa Bay area to the southwest of Central Florida have won a major victory. In addition to the creation of SunRail and the funding of Tri-Rail, the enabling legislation also creates two new state programs to deal with all present and future commuter rail systems in Florida. As far as state government is concerned, commuter rail in Florida “has arrived.”
– Real estate developers and entrepreneurs will benefit greatly. Even though Central Florida is very densely built-out and populated, look to new mixed use housing and retail and office developments to spring up within walking distance (Even in the Florida heat and rain in the Summer.) of the new SunRail stations.
3) Here is who will not benefit from the SunRail/Tri-Rail bill:
– Anyone who intentionally buys or builds a home near an existing railroad track which has been in place since the late 19th Century. The NIMBYs lost; the train tracks which were built to handle traffic will continue to do so, and those opposed to trains will have to find a life elsewhere.
– The anti-rail talking heads who make careers out of making arguments which are usually a couple of French fries short of a Happy Meal against commuter rail and any other type of rail. Often, what’s old is new, and commuter rail is making a comeback in this country and will have a happy life alongside the automobile and sport utility vehicles of the world. While the return on investment in SunRail and Tri-Rail may not happen in exactly the same way or following the same formula which works for building more and more roads and highways, the ROI on commuter rail has a proven record of success beyond the tired “green” and “sustainability” arguments which are – by themselves – no complete arguments at all for huge projects such as commuter rail.
– Asphalt and concrete manufacturers. Instead of laying literally miles and miles of asphalt and concrete on new roads, these folks will have to settle for acres of new asphalt and concrete on new commuter rail station parking lots and access roads.
4) As a final note, we should examine Amtrak’s role in all of this. Some had suggested in order to go around various liability questions with CSX and other issues before this bill was passed Amtrak should simply be the operator or SunRail, and many of those issues would go away.
Amtrak is consistently the most expensive commuter system operator in the country, with a less than stellar record (See the immediate previous issue of TWA to this issue and the discussion of Amtrak’s failures in California operating the Pacific Surfliner service on behalf of California.).
Here is something to think about: If Amtrak were no longer America’s best kept secret, and the company promoted itself like any other American company, more Americans would know of and understand passenger rail.
Reading the online news articles about SunRail and the accompanying idiotic, knee-jerk reactions to SunRail by uninformed readers was a tragic exercise. It appears a certain element of our society absolutely hates anything to do with passenger rail, and think it should be consigned to museums and Third World countries. These people have no idea, nor rational concept of the many economic and social benefits of passenger rail. Many of these people would rather give up their firstborn child than their automobiles.
There is nothing wrong with choice, just as there is nothing wrong with someone choosing to only travel in their personal vehicle. That’s the kind of choice we take for granted in this country, and we cherish to right to make that choice.
But, while keeping that same right to choose, we should not be taking away the rights of others who choose to travel by a means other than a personal vehicle.
Amtrak carries two tenths of one percent of America’s travelers, which is hardly a blip on anyone’s screen. Amtrak is – and remains – statistically irrelevant to American transportation.
If Amtrak chose to be a healthy, relevant passenger carrier, then many of the arguments made against SunRail out of ignorance simply would not have added anything beyond puffs of hot air to the discussion. That was not the case, however; SunRail failed twice because no one knew how to make a rational argument for passenger rail against a determined foe, because no one knows about passenger rail.
That is something Amtrak can do something about; it can stop being statistically irrelevant, and create a vision for the future which includes conventional passenger rail as part of our domestic transportation network. Until that happens, more prospective commuter rail systems are going to be delayed or shot down in flames because no one can talk intelligently about the sins and virtues of passenger rail in America.
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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA