Florida Rail Unlikely to Attract Riders

Published April 1, 2010

A proposed high speed train route between Tampa and Orlando is slated to receive more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds, but analysts report the “high speed” rail service will have trouble attracting riders because it will take about as long as a typical automobile trip. Perceived environmental benefits from the rail route will fail to materialize if commuters shun the rail service.

Little Reason to Ride
The Obama administration announced the award of $1.25 billion in stimulus funds to link Orlando to Tampa, a trip that takes approximately 90 minutes by car.

“The new high-speed rail service will provide an attractive and competitive transportation alternative for residents and visitors in the area,” the White House claimed in a press statement announcing the award. “This investment will initiate the development of the Tampa to Orlando segment, with speeds reaching 168mph and 16 round trips per day on brand new track dedicated solely to high-speed rail.”

But because five stops are planned along the proposed high speed train route, the train will shave only about 30 minutes off of the 84-mile trip.

The time savings will be reduced still further or altogether eliminated by the time commuters must spend at the train station waiting for the train to arrive and by time spent after the train ride acquiring and utilizing local transportation to reach the commuter’s ultimate destination.

The combination of train, bus, and taxi service is likely to be significantly more expensive than a simple automobile trip, further discouraging ridership.

Money Wasted?
If few commuters ride the train, the environmental benefits in automobile emission reductions will be minimal. And although the $1.25 billion in stimulus funds for construction of the rail line will buy a modest number of Florida jobs, even Florida officials doubt that this will be money well spent.

“Mr. Mica is pleased that Florida will benefit from the federal funding for the state’s high-speed rail project,” said Justin Harclerode, communications director for Congressman John Mica (R-FL). “However, … he has always believed that high-speed rail would have the most regional and national benefits if it were developed in the congested and heavily populated Northeast Corridor. He was disappointed the administration’s high-speed rail plans essentially ignored any significant development of high-speed rail in the [Northeast Corridor].”

Florida will still need $2.6 billion, in addition to the $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money, to complete the Orlando-Tampa rail route. Whether the federal government will provide that money is still unknown.

Rail Association Prefers Florida
Joe Shelhorse, vice president of membership services for the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, argues development along the Northeast Corridor is more expensive and presents many unique challenges.

“The Northeast corridor is an extremely developed region in terms of population, structures, build-out, … and it’s going to be a very expensive process to update the area. You’ll basically need billions and billions of dollars,” said Shelhorse.

On top of that, by the time rail development is complete, high-speed rail is often no longer viable, he said. Amtrak’s high-speed Acela, linking Boston to New York City and Washington, DC, was built to sustain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but actually averages much less because of curvy, congested tracks.

By contrast, the proposed route in Florida “will be a showcase,” said Shelhorse. “It won’t have to share with freight, like Amtrak, and whenever people come down to visit they can see what a high-speed train is supposed to be. Amtrak goes 80 miles per hour and they call it high-speed. It’s a joke.”

Greens Object to Rail, Too
That’s all dependent on environmentalists and whether they will stop protesting rail development, Shelhorse added.

“What’s really crazy is when the environmentalists fight high-speed rail,” he said, noting the idea of moving people out of their cars and into trains is a cause environmentalists once embraced. “But I guess environmentalists would just have us all stay home, collecting unemployment.”

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) writes from Northern Virginia.