High Speed Rail Killed in Florida

Post by Steven Dale

Planned route of the Florida High Speed Rail link between Tampa and Orlando. Image via Florida High Speed Rail.

The big news in transit planning circles yesterday was Florida Governor Rick Scott’s rejection of $2.4 billion (yes, billion) in federal funding for the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line.

While Florida would only have had to come to the table with an estimated $280 million to realize the project (approximately 10% of the total cost), Scott argued that potential cost overruns and operating subsidies could compromise the State’s finances.

For a good breakdown of the entire situation and the line’s history, check out The Transport Politic here, here and here.

To be frank, I was never fond of the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail link to begin with – and don’t worry, it’s not because I thought they should build it using gondola technology. My problem with the concept was that HSR seemed to be the wrong tool for the wrong job. Let me explain.

High Speed Rail is useful as a means to traverse medium distances between large population centers assuming a lack of intermediary stops. Yet while the Tampa-Orlando HSR would be only 135 km (84 miles), there would be four intermediary stops along the way. That prevents an HSR vehicle from reaching its ideal top speeds and cuts into travel times.

Furthermore, journeys don’t necessarily begin and end at rail stations. Despite the reservations I have about intermediary stations, travel times would be cut significantly. According to Florida High Speed Rail, journeys from downtown Tampa to Orlando International Airport would be cut from around 82 minutes by car (via ridership studies available for download here) to 55 minutes by HSR. But that doesn’t include the wait times involved. As the HSR was imagined to have 1 hour schedules, a person who misses their train due to any variety of reasons would have to wait for a period of time almost equivalent to the journey time itself.

Furthermore, the travel times given assume that everyone begins and ends their journey at those two specific locations. And yet the vast majority won’t. When making comparisons like this, it’s the total travel time that’s important. A potential rider isn’t going to make a decision based solely on the criteria of how long is required to get from the Tampa rail terminal to the Orlando Airport terminal. They’re going to ask the much more obvious question: How long does it take me to get from my door to the door of my destination?

As both Orlando and Tampa have severely underdeveloped transit systems, how one gets to and from the HSR stations muddy an already difficult picture. To solve this problem, authorities planned to include rental car, taxi, limo and bus facilities at each and every station – as much as admitting that before and after one arrives at an HSR station, one will require a second/third transit trip.

In other words: Unless your destination of choice is located within walking distance of the transit station, you’re likely to require some other form of transit in addition to the HSR. That means increased time (and money) spent getting to and from your respective stations as well as the time it takes to transfer.

Consider, for example, areas such as St. Petersburg and Clearwater, prime destinations unto themselves. Downtown St. Pete and Clearwater are both roughly 35 km (22 miles) away from downtown Tampa. So for an individual in Orlando wishing to visit Clearwater’s beaches or the new Dali Museum in St. Pete, the HSR becomes a non-starter.

So while the trip from Tampa to Orlando International Airport may have been faster by rail than by car, the actual time savings would have been negligible at best.

Lastly, given the nature of the region, the HSR was clearly targeted towards tourists. Unfortunately, aside from Disney World, none of the major tourist destinations in the area (and there are many) are located within walking distance of a station. Given how cheap rental cars are nowadays, what are the actual cost savings that the HSR line represents for a family of four?

Remember: It costs the same to rent a car whether you’ve got one person in it or five (notwithstanding gas). With the HSR, every individual must pay their own way. With one way HSR fares estimated to have been between $15-30 dollars, a single trip from Disney World to a Tampa Bay Bucaneers game becomes an expensive proposition – particularly when our hypothetical family has to include the cost and hassle of getting to and from each transit station.

Am I against high-speed rail? No. I think it’s a great technology suitable to connecting proximate centers of dense urban areas that suffer from major traffic congestion and have well-developed public transit networks of their own. Run a line from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles; or New York to DC; or Toronto to Montreal and I’m there in a heartbeat. Lines such as those make sense.

And while it’s regretful to see so much work put into a project such as the Florida HSR and see all that work wasted, maybe it’s for the best.

Maybe those funds will go to a better conceived project somewhere else in the Union.

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