Thursday, September 22, 2011

This Week at Amtrak

Vistas desde el Lago Eola, Downtown Orlando, F...Image by Jordi Gomara (itaca2000) via FlickrFrom the United Rail Passenger Alliance:

This Week at Amtrak, Vol. 8, No. 16
Volume 8, Number 16

From the Editors…

Now that the passenger rail future of Florida is coming into focus, This Week reviews how we got here.

A Tale of Two Rails

High-Speed Rail-you didn’t let that stop you…Central Florida got its act together and look at what is happening–SunRail is coming.” - U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood at the groundbreaking for SunRail, July 18, 2011

As most of our readers are aware, everyone involved in producing This Week at Amtrak has an inextricable link to the Sunshine State. Obviously, the passenger railroading world does not revolve around Florida. Even so, in a place where our usual entertainment is either watching one of our fellow citizens defend himself in court or watching the foreigners attempt to navigate our roads, our rail on-goings are a welcome change. In just the last year, two projects have been run through the meat grinder known as the court of public opinion. The final outcomes could not have been any different. Up until now, we at This Week have been loathe to mention SunRail and Florida HSR in the same sentence due to the mass perception that a rail is a rail. Therefore, yet again we beg the indulgence of our readers, as we take This Week back home for one more issue. The time has come to make the difference profoundly clear.

A “FOX” By Any Other Name

Florida had been seriously talking about linking some of our largest cities with high-speed trains since the energy crisis of 1973. In April 1982, Florida established a High-Speed Rail Committee to investigate the potential of HSR in the State. At the time, elected officials firmly believed such improvements would be funded by private investment; yet even, then many questions were raised:

“Are sufficient transit infrastructures available (or planned) to feed the rail system? Would tourists, many of whom now come in by car from out of State, switch modes once in Florida? Could other tourists be induced to ride the train with the current cost, service, and convenience factors provided by competing modes? Would private capital be sufficient to cover a project of that magnitude? Are there transportation alternatives that might better meet the State’s needs?” - U.S. Passenger Rail Technologies (Washington, D. C.: U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, OTA-STI-222, December 1983).

It was not until the following decade that all of these efforts crystallized into the initiative to be known as the Florida Overland eXpress (FOX):

“Introducing the FOX…a fully integrated 21st century, high speed travel system combining proven European TGV train technology with American engineering, management, and construction expertise to provide Florida with a safe, reliable and environmentally sensitive world class transportation system.” - Florida Overland eXpress brochure , 21st Century Travel, May 1996

The undertaking was as grand as the times we were living in. Truth be told, the 1990s were a great time to be alive. The Northeast was in line to get high-speed trains, and it was believed Florida would come in second in this friendly race, which was more than acceptable, since we were starting from scratch.

“Florida Overland eXpress - Initial and Projected Future Routes

Our initial route responds to the State’s request and will provide service between Miami and Orlando and between Orlando and Tampa. FOX service may eventually be extended into Fort Lauderdale, downtown Orlando, and St. Petersburg. After the main portion of the system is underway, service may also be extended to Jacksonville and then to other parts of Florida.” - Florida Overland eXpress brochure, Executive Summary, May 1996

With the State of Florida continuing to grow with no abatement in sight, it seemed only natural to enhance State infrastructure to meet future demands. The initial and future route regimen was simple and attainable; and then politics intervened. Within two years, the proposed route map exploded with high-speed routes running amok through every corner of the state. This phantasm along with its bloated price tag was mercifully put out of its misery by then-Governor Bush before the end of 1998, yet this was by no means the end.

What transpired over the next 10 years is what we here refer to as “high-end entertainment.” In 2000, the voting public approved an amendment to State constitution, mandating the establishment of a system of high-speed trains. The Florida High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) was created the following year. Although State funds for HSRA were vetoed by the Governor, Federal funds kept it afloat; efforts in planning a system continued. In 2004, the voting public approved a repeal of the high-speed train amendment, but the HSRA continued to meet, and completed the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the route between Tampa and Orlando. Ah, but now there was no more funding, and it seemed all for naught; yet, this is Florida, after all, and nothing is ever as it seems.

In 2009, the clarion call went out all over the land for High-Speed Rail. This call was answered in many corners of the country, but ultimately only two of the responses were close to plausible: California, which had its own long history of pursuing HSR; and Florida, which had its own EIS. As a result, Florida became the front runner for establishing, for the first time in the Western Hemisphere, a true high-speed railroad; even if it was only to be 84 miles long. The overall usability of the line was not the point, but rather the establishment of the ground rules for further HSR around the country.

Unfortunately, this was no longer the 1990s. Those halcyon days were long past, and the pale of a new era was only beginning to be understood by the masses. Florida, especially, was coming to grips with this new era. The 20-year boom era of about 1985 to 2005 had given way to bust and freefall. Most insidious of the boom days were the final few years, where real estate values skyrocketed on speculation, and home builders built houses for buyers who did not yet exist, but who they were sure would come. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it was plain that the prospective buyers were not coming. Millions of dollars of new building would remain vacant or sell dirt cheap. The last thing the citizenry wanted to hear about was some fancy new fast train that might put it on the hook financially for some indefinite period of time. Hunger will have that kind of affect on people. Consequently, the project went back on the shelf in 2011.

It may sound duplicitous, but the writers were in favor of the FOX back in the 1990s. It was a good idea. It was something we could afford…at the time. Was it perfect? No. It did not serve the downtown areas of the cities it was meant to connect, but the hope was that it could, someday. The Florida HSR of 2009 followed the same basic idea. Why not support it now? There was absolutely no guarantee the monies would ever be available to connect into downtown, let alone extend to South Florida. Although the landscape looks familiar, the reality is that we are in a very different place now. With these changes come shifts in priorities, if not a shift in paradigm. We most certainly have gone from thriving to survival mode, and it looks like we will be here for the duration.

Here Comes the Sun [Rail]

As early as 1989, the possibility of commuter rail had been deliberated in Central Florida. Tri-Rail had begun operation two years earlier, and one proposal was to extend Tri-Rail from South Florida to Tampa and Orlando as a way to connect the state. Soon enough, Tri-Rail was experiencing its own tribulations; thus Central Florida would be on its own, and so was formed the Central Florida Commuter Rail Authority (CFCRA).

In 1992, the CFCRA released its Project Feasibility Report which was all-inclusive of various forms of transit including light rail, commuter rail, and an increased number of buses to facilitate travel in and around the greater Orlando area. The commuter rail component received Federal authorization in 1998 as part of the Central Florida Rail System in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). In 2000, the light-rail portion was scrapped. In 2006 the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and CSX, the owner of the existing track in Orlando, agreed on the purchase of 61.5 miles of track between DeLand and Poinciana. For $432 million, the State gets the right-of-way, and pays CSX to increase capacity on the parallel freight line through Ocala for the anticipated traffic which will now bypass Orlando.

Perhaps it was ignorance; perhaps it was an attempt to curry favor. For whatever reason, FDOT committed a huge blunder in 2008 when it entered a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Amtrak regarding maintenance of commuter trains at its Sanford Auto Train facility. This would come around to bite FDOT almost two years later.

With the track through Orlando to become property of a State entity, liability for an accident would now be similar to that of any other public-owned conveyance: Limited. Such capped liability would also extend to CSX and the few freight trains that would be left. This did not sit well with many, and CSX ultimately agreed to shoulder “some of the cost of the state purchasing a liability policy. We wanted to help with them buying the type of policy they would need” and “we’re doing a similar thing up in Massachusetts where there were similar concerns about the liability issue. As a matter of fact, what we’re doing in Massachusetts and Florida is identical.” - interview with CSX CEO Mike Ward, Florida Times-Union, December 16, 2009

It did seem the whole thing might come to naught in 2009. The Great Recession hit central Florida rather hard, and many questioned the wisdom of spending scarce State cash on trains. Through two sessions of the State Senate, funding for commuter rail, now known as SunRail, was not forthcoming. But remember, this is Florida and nothing is ever as it seems. For the first and last time, an overt tie was made between commuter rail and high-speed rail. The Feds told the State that if the millions of dollars made available for commuter trains were not claimed, then the State could forget the billions of dollars made available for HSR. In an amazing turnaround, the State Senate met in a special session and passed the SunRail legislation.

Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has carried it own indemnification for its operations over the tracks of other railroads. Even if Amtrak experienced an accident that was completely the fault of the host railroad, Amtrak would still be responsible for settlement. So it was something of a shock (even for those of us in Florida) when Amtrak claimed, in January of 2010, that FDOT was in violation of their MOU. Despite carrying its own indemnification, it pushed for an arrangement similar to that of CSX. For whatever reason, Amtrak believed it had a stake in the game because of a 1999 agreement with CSX regarding the long-distance passenger trains that run through what was to become State-owned property. Amtrak was deluded enough to believe it held the authority to scuttle the deal. At best, if Amtrak did not wish to recognize State ownership, at jeopardy were the two long-distance trains and the Auto Train which runs North out of Sanford. This was tantamount to sticking a gun to one’s own head and demanding “Do as I say or I’ll shoot.”

It took almost all year, but in December of 2010 Amtrak dropped its opposition to SunRail following an hour-long meeting in the office of U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, with soon-to-be-Chairman of the Transportation Committee, Florida’s own U.S. Representative John Mica, in attendance. Following this calibration, Amtrak issued a statement saying it had “long supported the SunRail project.” Hopefully, going forward, FDOT and SunRail will appreciate that they had best do without Amtrak’s support.

Of course, the rest is history. On January 28, 2011, newly-elected Governor Rick Scott put SunRail on hold in order to review the project. On February 26, 2011, he cancelled Florida HSR, citing concerns over possible future operating costs. Then came July 1, 2011, and the official go-ahead for SunRail followed by the official “ground breaking” on the property of Florida Hospital. The caterers expected 300 to attend, but there were at least 400. There was one protester, who did succeed in attaining his fifteen minutes of fame.

Many pundits believed the Governor would ax SunRail, since in their eyes all rails are created equal. State supporters of HSR mounted rallies and campaigns to stop SunRail. (Most people did not notice, since the airways were saturated with the trial of one of our denizens who was found guilty of parental antipathy which, as it turns out, is not a crime.) Five days before the governor’s decision, what can only be described as an embarrassment of journalism proffered by a will-write-for-food reporter appeared in the New York Times. Although starting off with “Here in sun-parched Central Florida,” the author obviously had no clue what Floridians are really about, as evidenced by describing SunRail in these terms: “It will not link to the Orlando airport or Disney World, among the region’s biggest traffic generators.” This is a slap in the face to those of us who actually live here, and the Grey Lady owes us an apology for printing such tripe.

SunRail is not purposed for the tourists, but rather for the locals. The New York Times made no mention of Florida Hospital or Orlando Regional Medical Center, two of the biggest employers and traffic generators in the City of Orlando. Their master plans; not their plans for future development, but their actual master plans as filed to the governments per State law; are contingent on SunRail. For example, a Florida Hospital station is to be provided by Florida Hospital according to its master plan, and Florida Hospital has already provided the infrastructure for it. During the ground breaking, the hospital announced the impending construction of a new administration building to be sited next to the future station site. This is a case where it will not be feasible to just deny the commuter train and build a road, instead. The whole "Medical City" concept will have to be reconsidered, with much of it already in the ground.

Unfortunately, with all this “rail” talk, the lines blurred. Most media outlets cannot tell the difference, with one even referring to “high-speed commuter rail.” Florida HSR did do some good in that it prompted enough elected non-stake holders outside the Orlando area to vote in favor of SunRail. Ultimately, Florida HSR failed because it was the purview of out-of-state interests who, once it served its purpose of setting the new standards for domestic HSR, could easily walk away, leaving it to the locals. The questions raised nearly 30 years earlier are still pertinent and remain inadequately answered. SunRail succeeded because it is from the locals. Local stakeholders understand it will have cascading benefits on other local interests such as engineering and construction companies, all of which are eager for work in our recession-ravaged state. The locals also understand that this is their baby, for which they will be responsible. Yes, Mr. Secretary, we did get our act together. SunRail is (finally) happening.
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