Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

A subtler way of saying no

Posted in America, Commuter, High Speed, Infrastructure, Politics by Chairman Pip on 23 February 2011

So, four months after he was elected, Governor Rick Scott of the great state of Florida has decided to follow the lead of his GOP colleagues, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Governor John Kasich of Ohio in rejecting the offer of federal funding for the construction of new railways in his state. The difference in this case is that Florida’s plan was for a brand new, genuine high speed route, initially between the cities of Orlando and Tampa, with trains that were planned to run up to 186mph, and this plan was practically ready to start construction, with the construction costs almost fully covered by the grants from the federal government, with virtually nothing to come from funds provided by the state itself. The excuse given by the governor is the potential for cost overruns being borne by the state:

The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits.

Again the word “boondoggle” has come up from critics of the scheme, with people commenting that the proposed route would shave “only” 30 minutes off the time it takes to drive from Orlando to Tampa along Interstate 4 (which the train would parallel). Of course, this does not take into consideration the time it takes to get to the ultimate destination from the Interstate (or does it? Are the critics so familiar with the layout of both cities and the traffic patterns that they can confidently claim that much accuracy in their timing?), and the amount of time to find a parking space. The second problem (of three that I can see off the top of my head) that is claimed is that the passenger numbers will be lower than the predictions, and that will also put a finanical burden on the Florida taxpayer. I have no doubt that, to begin with, this would likely be true, because it will take a long time to re-educate Americans into using public transport when they have had such a long love affair with the car. But surely once the service was up and running, and the fare structure proved to be cost effective against using private cars, then more and more people would end up using the service. As I’ve stated, such an operation could well expand the “hinterland” of both Orlando and Tampa, making it easier for people to live in one and work in the other should they wish. Most people should be well aware of the use of the Shinkansen by commuters in the Greater Tokyo Area, where it is not uncommon to travel anything up to 200km to get from home to work, and why the E1 and E4 Series of double-deck trains entered service. Because commuting on the Shinkansen is so common, the rail companies that operate the Shinkansen routes offer special commuter fares for regular travellers. Obviously, any Orlando-Tampa conurbation would not be the size of Greater Tokyo, but should the opportunity of high speed commuting be made available, then commuter fares could obviously then be offered. The third and last thing is the comments and criticisms of the selection of Orlando and Tampa as the route, as if this would be all there was of the Florida high speed network. People seem to be ignoring that it would form one half of it, with the rest of it planned to link Orlando with Miami forming an inverted ‘L’ shape. This links back to the time element – are there many people that drive from Miami to Orlando? I’m sure that most people seeking to make that journey would fly. Assuming that the high speed rail comes within the 4-5 hour timeframe that most experts say is where it competes with air travel, then there’s no reason to assume it couldn’t do so, given that there would (as we all say) be no struggling out of the airport having collected your luggage, trying to find a taxi and having to drive all the way into the city, because you’re already in the centre of the city.

In reading about the Governor’s thinking and decision making regarding high speed rail (and how he is seemingly against the idea of the cities of Orlando and Tampa taking over the state’s responsibility for the route), I noticed something else that snuck in under the radar:

In a brief appearance before reporters Monday, the governor also said he still has not decided whether the state should go ahead and build the $1.2 billion SunRail commuter train in Central Florida. The project, approved by the Legislature in 2009, is still “under review,” he said, adding he had no timetable on when he might decide.

This is intended as a commuter route to serve Orlando and its surrounding areas, and was approved by the Forida State Legislature in 2009, as part of a package that also included funding for the improvement of the Tri-Rail network that runs commuter trains for to Miami and Fort Lauderdale in South Florida. When the approval was passed, the President of the Senate said:

Today, Florida is embracing the opportunity to lead the nation in developing a comprehensive transportation system, thereby ensuring our competitive edge in the 21st Century global economy. A comprehensive transportation system, creating opportunities and avenues to connect employers and employees, is integral to building a stronger future for Florida.

Jeff Atwater, President of the Florida Senate

Given that this is something that has been voted on by the legislators of Florida, and has been praised by someone from the Governor’s own party, it is low that he has decided to sit on his hands about it. What is worse is that this seems to have been buried under the high speed rail news. It certainly does seem that Governor Rick Scott is a lot more subtle about saying “no” to railway improvements in his state. Well, if he gives back the £2.5bn of federal funding that has been promised, as with Wisconsin’s $800m and Ohio’s $400m, it’ll just go to someone else. While not wishing to jump the gun, I have to say that I will be rolling about laughing if California (the only other state with a genuine high speed network ready to start work) makes a success of of it, with Florida having been left behind. Well, we’ll see. But in my opinion this is yet another short sighted decision from a Republican.

“Scott dismisses new high-speed-rail assurances”

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