Feb 22, 2011

The Future of Rail in America

 Florida, where we live and work, is at the epicenter of the Tea Party lead effort to we guess get rid of government. The new Governor Scott recently told the feds he does not want the money already appropriated for a fast rail line connecting  parts of Orlando with parts of Tampa. The rail is to eventually connect from Orlando to Miami and maybe Orlando to Jacksonville one day thus serving all 4 of Florida's largest metro areas.

Here's a rendering of how where the Fast Rail will lay on I 4:


from Metroplan Orlando the local transportation planning board we read,
"As the name suggests, high speed rail travels at high speeds over large distances.  This type of rail is best-suited for travel between large cities. 
In 2009, the federal government unveiled a new national plan for intercity passenger rail coupled with a commitment to provide more than $13 billion in federal funding over five years. On January 28, 2010, Florida was awarded $1.25 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (economic stimulus) funds to start construction of Florida’s first high speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa.  An additional $800 million was awarded in October 2010.
The Orlando-Tampa line will run 84 miles from Orlando International Airport to downtown Tampa. Construction of the line is expected to cost $2.6 billion."

Ridership estimates for this first line of Orlando to Tampa has been all over the place and many politicians have changed their stance on the rail line many times

The fun thing is that many Republicans such as Dean Canon one of the heads of the  Fla legislature was originally for the fast train as was US Congressman John Mica. But now that the Governor has gone tea party on us these folks all of a sudden see rail as a gigantic waste of tax payer money(By the way did you see where the fly over at the '11 Super Bowl cost $450,000-now that's a great use of transportation $).

As we write this piece Congressman Mica is about to propose a plan that would build the fast train in the Orlando area only servicing the Orlando airport, attractions, and convention complex. The ridership for this area has been projected to be very strong and offer an immediate pay back on the investment.

Here's text from an email we received from Florida Senator Bill Nelson,
A bipartisan group of the state's political and business leaders have pursued high-speed rail in Florida for decades, because it means more than $2.4 billion in economic aid, thousands of construction jobs and a modern transportation link between several of the state’s largest cities. That’s why I support it. I’m joined by state lawmakers and many members of Florida's congressional delegation, who also question the governor’s decision to kill high-speed rail. One is U.S. Rep. John Mica, the Winter Park Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee. Also, federal transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, has expressed disappointment. If Florida doesn’t take the money, another state will. So, some of us will look for ways to save the rail project. Meantime, please don’t hesitate to pass along your thoughts.

Here's a reprint from a good discussion by Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson on rail in America. Samuelson tends to be conservative but is smart and makes some good points
 Monday, August 24, 2009
The Obama administration's enthusiasm for high-speed rail is a dispiriting example of government's inability to learn from past mistakes. Since 1971, the federal government has poured almost $35 billion in subsidies into Amtrak with few public benefits. At most, we've gotten negligible reductions -- invisible and statistically insignificant -- in congestion, oil use or greenhouse gases. What's mainly being provided is subsidized transportation for a small sliver of the population. In a country where 140 million people go to work every day, Amtrak has 78,000 daily passengers. A typical trip is subsidized by about $50.

Given this, you'd think even the dullest politician wouldn't expand rail subsidies, especially considering the almost $11 trillion in projected federal budget deficits between now and 2019. But no, the administration has made high-speed rail a top priority. It's already proposed spending $13 billion ($8 billion in the "stimulus" package and $1 billion annually for five years) as a down payment on high-speed rail in 10 "corridors," including Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and Houston to New Orleans. 

 The White House promises fabulous benefits. High-speed rail "will loosen the congestion suffocating our highways and skyways," says Vice President Biden. A high-speed rail system would eliminate carbon dioxide emissions "equal to removing 1 million cars from our roads," adds the president. Relieve congestion. Fight global warming. Reduce oil imports. The vision is seductive. The audience is willing. Many Americans love trains and regard other countries' systems (say, Spain's rapid trains between Madrid and Barcelona, running at about 150 mph) as evidence of U.S. technological inferiority.
There's only one catch: The vision is a mirage. The costs of high-speed rail would be huge, and the public benefits meager.

President Obama's network may never be built. It's doubtful private investors will advance the money, and once government officials acknowledge the full costs, they'll retreat. In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office cited a range of construction costs, from $22 million a mile to $132 million a mile. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser figures $50 million a mile might be a plausible average. A 250-mile system would cost $12.5 billion and 10 systems, $125 billion.
That would be only the beginning. Ticket prices would surely be subsidized; otherwise, no one would ride the trains. Would all the subsidies be justified by public benefits -- less congestion, fewer highway accidents, lower greenhouse gases?

In a blog-posted analysis, Glaeser made generous assumptions for trains ("Personally, I almost always prefer trains to driving") and still found that costs vastly outweigh benefits. Consider Obama's claim about removing the equivalent of 1 million cars. Even if it came true (doubtful), it would represent less than one-half of 1 percent of the 254 million registered vehicles in 2007.

What works in Europe and Asia won't in the United States. Even abroad, passenger trains are subsidized. But the subsidies are more justifiable because geography and energy policies differ.
Densities are much higher, and high densities favor rail with direct connections between heavily populated city centers and business districts. In Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it's 653 in Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, plentiful land in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can't pick up most people where they live and work and take them to where they want to go. Cars can.
Distances also matter. America is big; trips are longer. Beyond 400 to 500 miles, fast trains can't compete with planes. Finally, Europe and Japan tax car transportation more heavily, pushing people to trains. In August 2008, notes the GAO, gasoline in Japan was $6.50 a gallon. Americans regard $4 a gallon as an outrage. Proposals for stiff gasoline taxes (advocated by many, including me) go nowhere.
The mythology of high-speed rail is not just misinformed; it's antisocial. Governments at all levels are already overburdened. Compounding the burdens with new wasteful subsidies would squeeze spending for more vital needs -- schools, police and (ironically) mass transit. High-speed rail could divert funds from mass-transit systems that, according to a study by Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute, have huge maintenance backlogs: $16 billion in Chicago; $17 billion in New York; $12.2 billion in Washington; $5.8 billion in San Francisco. Any high-speed rail system should be financed locally; states should decide their transportation priorities.

All this seems familiar, because it's Amtrak writ large: the triumph of fantasy over fact. The same false arguments used to justify Amtrak (less congestion, pollution, etc.) are recycled. Evidence and experience count for little. Obama and Biden pander to popular prejudices instead of recognizing past failure. Boondoggles become respectable. A White House so frivolous in embracing dubious spending cannot be believed when it professes concern about future taxes and budget deficits.

We took the following from a blog in the Orlando Sentinel--sorta interesting on the rail distance and times in Europe. The TGV in case you do not know is the French Fast Rail.

TGV's Most Popular Routes
  • Paris to Avignon in 2 hours 36 minutes
  • Paris to Nice in 5 hours 35 minutes
  • Paris to Bordeaux in 3 hours 10 minutes
  • Paris to Lausanne in 3 hours 54 minutes
  • Paris to Dijon in a 1 hour 40 minutes
  • Paris to Lyon in a 2 hours 10 minutes
  • Paris to Marseille in 3 hours 20 minutes
  • Paris to Frankfurt in a 4 hours
  • Paris to Luxembourg in a 2 hours 12 minutes
  • Paris to Stuttgart in 3 hours 39 minutes
  • Brussels to Avignon in 4 hours 58 minutes
  • Brussels to Paris CDG Airport in 1 hour 42 minutes
  • Brussels to Nice in 7 hour 34 minutes
  • Geneva to Lyon in 1 hour 38 minutes

We live in a town, Orlando, that has experienced the great Disney monorail system for over 30 years. Sad that such innovation has not been rolled out to more of this country. 

It is hard to compare America to Europe and say Japan since the culture of the automobile although large there is nowhere near the way it is here thanks largely to President Eisenhower's interstate highway push.

Infrastructure is very expensive and is not sexy but it can really help productivity and business-many in Japan for instance take the train many miles each day to go shopping.

We are all for light rail and commuter rail in large metro areas since it reduces pollution, gives those without a car a way to transport, and connects the space for all.

Fast rail is more difficult. For America to duplicate the success of Japan and France could take decades but certainly there are corridors such as the Northeast from DC to Boston and California from LA to San Francisco that just seem to make sense for fast rail. 

Unbelievably we will side with Governor Scott and say we are unsure if Fast rail is right for Florida. BUT the money has already been appropriated so guess we should use it.

The link to the Florida High Speed rail website 

The link to the Metroplan Orlando website

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