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High Speed Rail’s Gator Aid

Whispered in July, rumored in December, and nearly shouted earlier this week, today marks the official announcement of Florida’s high-speed rail investment by the federal government. Many will talk about what this day means for a new age of American infrastructure, and even more, including my colleagues, will debate the overall efficacy of such an investment. For me, I’d rather get into some of the nitty-gritty of what appears to be, thanks to the president’s Tampa event, the flagship project in Florida. 

First off, there’s much to like for Florida’s current residents and future tourists. The Tampa and Orlando metropolitan areas, along with their sandwiched neighbor Lakeland, were home to almost 3.4 million people in 2008. That year their economies produced $230.6 billion of economic output, more than the Czech Republic. A huge part of this is the vibrant tourist industry: Few places in the world give visitors simultaneous access to many top theme parks, multiple world-class beaches, and bona fide big city culture all within 120 miles. A pleasurable and useful train ride won’t just benefit Floridians, and could become an additional beacon to visitors across the country.

Florida also offers the Federal Railroad Administration, the official administrator of the high speed rail (HSR) stimulus grants, a well-prepared recipient. Florida already owns over 90 percent of the route’s right-of-way, they’ve already completed the environmental impact assessment, and the deal is structured to take advantage of private donations and operational risk. Just as importantly, Florida projects to open the line in 2015, making sure these funds get spent in short order and users will see the benefits quickly. Florida also has wanted this for some time; they originally passed a ballot initiative back in 2000.

But, let’ be clear--this isn’t a perfect plan. A major problem is that the Orlando Convention Center station is over eight miles from a soon-to-open SunRail commuter rail station. This disconnect represents a missed opportunity for intermodal linkage, especially since SunRail reaches downtown Orlando and the HSR route does not. Intermodal links, including the ease by which one can rent a car at the HSR stations, are critical in a state like Florida that’s been developed in an auto-centric manner.

I’m also concerned how the route will attract ridership beyond the local households of Orlando, Lakeland, and Tampa. It’s worth questioning whether Clearwater and St. Petersburg residents will drive into downtown Tampa to take a train to Disney World, especially when they’ve already driven a quarter of the way. The same story goes for places further afield like Sarasota. 

So, where are we after today? Well, we know that central Florida will construct the first leg of a statewide HSR network, and possibly open the first start-to-finish HSR link in the country. But we also don’t know how they beat other projects vying for the same money or how the FRA Administrator made the final decision. Was Florida’s projected savings of 580,000 gallons of fossil fuel in the first year more or less than other states? The same goes for its projected 2.7 million passenger trips in the first year.

For now, we should all reserve final judgment until FRA releases its application grading and justifies the other stimulus rail investments. Because without that level of transparency this process, even though marked by a turn towards more rigorous selection procedures, will become just as tainted as the pork-infused criticism leveled at current transportation investments.

As a native Floridian, I’m certainly excited by the prospects. But I also hope my home state makes the country proud, becoming just the first in a long line of sensible and true high speed rail investments across the country. So here’s to drinking a fresh glass of Florida’s finest in five years while zipping through Polk County--and that we’ll all be enjoying the same sweet OJ on other routes across the country in the decades to come.