Wednesday, March 23, 2011

This Week in Amtrak

1DSC_7506-Taiwan High Speed Rail, Railroad 高速鐵...Image by 棟樑‧Harry‧黃基峰‧Taiwan via Flickr

This Week at Amtrak Vol. 8 No. 5
From the Editors…

This week a post-mortem of Florida’s latest foray into High-Speed Rail.

There was no Plan B

Oh I used to be disgusted… and now I try to be amused. - Elvis Costello

On February 16, Florida's Governor Rick Scott announced that the State of Florida would not move forward with the Federal plans to build a high-speed railway between Tampa and Orlando International Airport. Similar announcements had already been made in Wisconsin and Ohio earlier this year. So what is the big deal?

Well, if one were to believe the political rhetoric that has been fired across the bow since then, one might come to the conclusion the governor has cancelled every holiday on the calendar and shot everyone’s favorite pet. The U.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, extended the deadline for accepting the Federal monies, $2.4 billion, so as to give the state just one more last chance. On March 1, two State senators filed suit in the Florida Supreme Court, as citizens, not on behalf of the Senate, to order the governor to take the money. Right about now, Governor Scott is probably wondering if he should have stayed in his native American Midwest. Nevertheless the answer is still “no.” So what is the big deal?

The U.S. Department of Transportation was willing to let go of projects in Ohio and Wisconsin that were not really high-speed rail, but rather state-of-the-art conventional trains running at conventional speeds on improved conventional track. The HSR label was only added to offer the illusion of progress to sell this imperious immediacy of interest. However, as they were not true HSR they were expendable. The sum total of rejected Federal monies was less than half of the ultimate total offered to Florida, and was quickly dispersed to other states. Florida, it would seem, is an entirely different story.

“You recall unpleasant memories: of hours wasted in slow moving traffic; of disquieted children in the backseat of your car; of rushing to the airport to discover your flight canceled; of missing important business appointments; and of the hassles involved in moving around this great state. Those difficult days, though, remind you how fortunate you are to live in a state where logic prevailed in the mid 1990s. Relaxing into your plush, expansive seat, you sigh contentedly when an attendant brings your drink. Just before you doze off, lulled into a peace-filled rest by the train’s near-silent motion, you briefly wonder, ‘Who made all this possible?’” - Opening statement from the Florida Overland eXpress Executive Summary, 1996.

Fifteen years ago, the vision was crystal clear; a fast train connecting three of Florida’s largest metro areas in comfort and style. The planning was solid but the money was scarce, and the whole thing seemed to come to naught in 1999. Then in 2000, an amendment to the State Constitution was approved by Florida voters, and in 2001 the State Legislature enacted the Florida High Speed Rail Authority Act; however, in 2004 Florida voters repealed the 2000 amendment, citing the expense of such a project.

To say there are a tenacious few who continue to keep the flame alive for fast trains in the Sunshine State would be an understatement. Five years after the voting public made their opinion clear, a Federal initiative sought to overrule local sentiments. With a seemingly ever- larger flow of Federal monies, a scheme was hatched to invest $2.4 billion in just the 84-mile Tampa-Orlando leg of the system under the auspices of building a national network of fast trains. There was no referendum, there was no ballot initiative; just an imperious immediacy of interest from Washington, D.C. With the nation in general and the State of Florida in particular suffering the ravages of hard economic times, any infusion of cash -- from any source -- seemed like a godsend. And with other trains on the national drawing board, Florida did not feel alone. But once again there was one rather large string attached: The potential large outlay of local funds. For this reason, the governor cancelled the project. Once again money was a big deal.

High-speed trains are not evil. However, nowhere on earth do they operate in a vacuum. In France, the national railway operates everything from urban transportation to high-speed trains. While they operate around 14,000 trains every day, only a relative handful are high speed. For a high-speed train to be successful it needs feeders to connect to places where the riding public actually wants to go. As of right, now these types of networks do not exist in Central Florida.

In what may appear as a case of bitter grapes, a ridership report was released just after the project was cancelled. Picked up by various news outlets was the figure of “3.3 million annual riders” and “would have made money from Day One.” This report was produced, for $1.3 million, by the firms of Steer Davies Gleave and Wilbur Smith Associates. In March 2010 Wilbur Smith Associates along with HNTB, in a joint partnership, were selected as program manager for passenger rail in the State of Florida. Moreover, the much-touted report was nothing more than five pages of numbers, with no justification for how those figures were compiled. The reader may read into this with impunity.

The initial route of 84 miles was chosen in large part due to the relative low cost of building, possibly $3 billion if one includes moderate overruns; however, connecting Central Florida with Central Florida now seems like an oxymoron. This fact was not lost on a recent article by Michael Cooper in the New York Times, “Tampa and Orlando are only 84 miles apart, generally considered too close for high-speed rail to make sense. The train trip, with many stops along the way, would have shaved only around a half-hour off the drive. Since there are no commercial flights between the two cities, the new line would not have lured away fliers or freed up landing slots at the busy airports.”

Ultimately the fast train in Central Florida would have been of little to no practical use for the everyday traveler. It would have missed all of the town centers on its route, thus would not have been a catalyst for urban development or renewal. A state-of-the-art conventional train on improved extant tracks would pass through the historic town centers, would be a catalyst for development, and should cost less than a third of the now-defunct fast train. But without the “HSR” label, it is not sexy enough for consideration by those who worry about their legacy.

In retrospect, perhaps the Orlando to Miami leg of the plan should have been considered first. At 240 miles, just over two and a half times the length of Tampa-Orlando, it certainly would have cost over two and a half times as much; however, connecting Central Florida with South Florida does make sense both politically as well as financially, and it certainly would be much less expensive than the postulated $42 billion price tag for the full build-out proposed in California.

With Florida now officially out of the high-speed rail business, attention turns to California and the building of America’s first true high-speed train between the metropolises of Fresno and Bakersfield. Instead of Central Florida it will be left to the Central Valley to iron out specifications, codes, analyses, and operating procedures for all American fast trains to follow. This is probably not what the administration envisioned as the next great leap in transportation for the country.

Ultimately the administration placed all its bets on Central Florida in the belief that everyone was on the same page; that everyone believed in the concept of high-speed rail. In doing so, they never contemplated what to do if everyone was not on the same page. In short, they had no plan B. If connecting Central Florida with Central Florida seemed obtuse, then what would connecting the 35th- and 58th- largest cities in the nation seem like?

For now, those passionate purveyors of fast trains in Florida must once again close their plan books and return them to their shelves. Again, they will have to wait for the day when someone whisking along at over 150 mph will ask, “Who made all this possible?” Perhaps someday, but not today.

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