Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Another side to the high speed rail debate

Rick Geller, a local attorney who is on the Orange County Planning and Zoning Board and has local government blog, emailed me a response to my blog post last week on Governor Scott's rejection of the high speed rail money. He's given me permission to reprint it:
Hi, Sarah - I enjoyed reading your recent post, but please consider my thoughts on the Governor's high speed rail decision:

There's no indication the Governor considered a report estimating a return on investment for the Orlando area at well over $2 billion annually. These systems produce operator profits all over the world.  Links are at my blog.

The Governor's decision will not reduce the Federal deficit. His alternative--expanding highways--is billions more costly. Florida taxpayers would bear at least 10 percent of the cost, even assuming DOT would fund such a proposal after this high profile snub. The reality is that shifting dedicated rail funds to highways is unlawful.

I've rarely seen more public criticism of a sitting Republican governor by members of our own party.  Florida taxpayer out-of-pocket exposure was close to zero, with private industry bearing the risk of cost overruns, as well as operations and maintenance. Governor Scott apparently is unfamiliar with performance bonds in public contracts, given his reliance on a worst case scenario operator default, unprecedented among high speed rail systems worldwide, to my knowledge. 
I hope the Governor gives Congressman Mica's latest proposal--a shortened airport to Disney World line--the consideration it warrants.  We have close to 50 million tourists annually to sustain such a line.  That's double the population of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston combined.  John Mica has studied rail for years and would not lead us in a fiscally risky direction. 

What do you think? Geller presents some interesting numbers and issues to debate. This is a highly complicated topic, and anyone who presents a simplistic answer is not being honest. Building a high speed rail system is neither the solution to all our problems nor the worst thing that could ever happen to us.

I don't consider myself necessarily "anti-rail," but I'm not really "pro-rail" either. As I said last week, building a hundred lanes on I-4 won't solve our traffic problems, and I also believe that increasing density in certain metropolitan cores is the only way to preserve as much of our green spaces as possible. Strip malls and other sprawling developments threaten our  state's water table, indigenous plant and animal species, and the natural beauty that not only draws millions of tourists here every year, but also makes Florida a wonderful place to live.

An honest discussion about how our state should grow should include a frank and open discussion about mass transit at some point. Maybe high speed rail will be a part of the solution, maybe not. But even if rail is the right solution, maybe now isn't the time. I must say that I am skeptical of the promised job numbers associated with the rail projects.
It really bugs the heck out of me how the White House has decided that now - during the worst economy since the Great Depression and the highest levels our national debt has ever reached - is the time to build a lot of high speed rail systems all over the country. You and I would never buy a new car or build an addition on our house if we had just lost our job, so why is this government so obsessed with finding new and exciting ways to spend a crapload of money?


  1. There may be a good argument for a discrete inter-city rail line between MCO and the Disney resort which might relieve the congestion and confusion of 54 million tourists on the I-4. But that just sounds like a municipal monorail.

    But the spending which the Obama Administration envisages is inter-city modal transporation. There is no way it can be justified on a cost/benegit analysis.

    But as I have been studying at:
    the Sunshine Rail project would not even be high speed. While the train theoretically may be capable of reaching 168 mph, the number of scheduled stops along the Tampa to Orlando route would barely beat an 84 mile car trip even on a congested interstate. And based on Amtrack fares, I'd shutter at the costs and reliability of that route

  2. Sarah--I agree with you about the scope of Federal spending. If we could truly reduce the Federal deficit by $2.4 billion, it would be a much closer call for me. Unfortunately, that's not an option. Either we take the money and improve our transportation infrastructure or California likely gets it.

    BD Matt--Your assessment of the shortened route is similar to U.S. DOT's, which gave John Mica's proposal a chilly reception. Economist Hank Fishkind says the Mica alternative is a common model for funding transportation infrastructure--build the high volume route first and use profits for expansion.

    FDOT's engineers projected a top speed of at least 168 mph on the full route. An error in calculations would have made news outside of an anti-rail blog. The only statement I could find in a brief search on the blog states, "The Orlando to Tampa leg of the Florida High Speed Rail System might be capable of traveling at 168 miles per hour. But due to the number of stops along the 84 mile route, the “Supertrain” would only beat a car trip on a congested I-4 by a half an hour." Well, that depends on the traffic. I've been stuck in Disney traffic on I-4 for well over an hour on more than one occassion. It's a real mess--and I try to avoid it. A Miami-Orlando high speed rail route would have significantly greater time savings compared to automobile travel, but chances are we won't see any high speed rail lines in Florida for a long, long time.

    Rick Geller

  3. Although it is probably a moot point, the Turnpike Route of the Florida High Speed Rail plan might have been a showcase for quick intercity travel as the 235 mile route only had a few stops planned, so passengers would be able to experience a bullet train like experience.

    Instead, the Feds and the FDOT chose to concentrate on the MCO-downtown Tampa route. The five stations along the 84 mile route would never allow the train to hit those impressive speeds. It is dubious if they would be enough regular riders to plunk down the estimated $60 round-trip between Tampa and Orlando to save 20 minutes on each leg of the journey [figures from comparing travel times in congestion to a smooth rail run]

    As for tourists hopping on the caboose, it makes sense to have the first stop be at the Orlando Convention Center, as business conventioneers who often are traveling alone on an expense account would pay a premium for convenience and speed. The Disney stop seems like a natural but its utilization would be very cost dependent. The 19 mile ride between MCO and Disney would cause prudent family planners to do a cost benefit analysis as to whether the combined costs of a round trip of rail for several persons would eliminate the need for a car or if the ground transport costs would be better met by less expensive (albeit slower) means. But High Speed Rail is designed for inter-city travel not congestion relief.

    I suspect that the Central Florida route was chosen for political reasons as it was the shortest length, it already had the wide envelope of the median available and that it could be done quickly to serve as a showcase for the Obama Administration’s Stimulus, alternatives to automobiles and the 21st Century Infrastructure initiatives.

    I am not absolutely adverse to train travel. Having lived in Europe, I am accustomed to weighing the merits of various modes of transit before taking a journey. Trains could be quite desirable for some medium haul (less than six hour) trips, by the time one includes pre-arrival and wonderful encounters with TSA types.

    Some regular train lines make sense. Although it is a discrete microcosm, Disney does well incorporating a monorail through their expansive acreage. The commuter rails in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Chicago serve a steady stream of customers (and many come close to profitability).

    However, Smart Rail can’t be forced. Think of the Detroit People Mover, a.k.a. “Coleman’s Trolly”. It was a $190 million boondoggle championed by the Mayor of Detroit that was completed in 1987. The 2.9 mile track that only seems to cater to tourists. I was impressed by the 2 million plus ridership but that it probably because of the $0.50 ticket cost until I noticed that the City of Detroit absorbs a $3 loss per rider. Allegedly, it only costs the Detroit $12 million a year. It does nothing to alleviate congestion (if any exists in the abandoned Mo-Town) but it does allow for people to safely get from the Renaissance Center or Joe Louis Arena to Greektown.

    I question the economics on the California coastal line but the distance between terminuses and the clientele’s disposition should make the venture popular (but not profitable). That is if California can pony up the estimated $50 billion when the state is going bankrupt.


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