Rail plan: Taxpayers wouldn't pay for the Tampa-Orlando line
October 11, 2009
When Tampa residents recently learned that a one-way ticket on the state's proposed high-speed train to Walt Disney World and Orlando could cost $25 to $30, some doubted the train would draw enough passengers to make the project feasible.
"I could see spending $20 round-trip to go to Disney, but $50 would be too expensive," said Eric Greenbaum, a tech support adviser from Citrus Park. "Then you have to add the likelihood of paying for parking at the Tampa high-speed station."
Fare revenue is expected to fully support the operating needs of the High Speed Rail Express that could begin service by early 2015, consultant The PFM Group said in an Oct. 1 letter to the Florida Department of Transportation.
That means taxpayers would not pay to operate and maintain the 88-mile line, according to the state's Oct. 2 application for federal stimulus money for the Tampa-Orlando segment.
"We have expectations that a private sector operator (to be selected) for the project will assume ridership risks," Nazih Haddad, FDOT's High Speed Rail Project manager, said last week.
Fresh details about Florida's project, which could eventually extend to Miami, emerged with the application the Obama administration will use to decide which states share $8 billion in stimulus money and up to $5 billion more over five years to launch the first U.S. high-speed systems. The recipients will be selected in December.
Sixteen daily round-trips are projected between downtown Tampa and Orlando International Airport, some with stops at Lakeland, Disney and International Drive in Orlando. Seventeen more daily round-trips would operate between Disney and Orlando International.
Between 2.8 million and 3.2 million passengers, not including Disney-to-airport riders, are expected to use the system in 2015. If the Orlando-Miami segment were built â?? money has not been sought for that â?? 6.7 million passengers would ride between Tampa and Miami in 2018, the state projects.
The revenue figures estimate full fares of $15 between Tampa and Lakeland, and $25 between Tampa and Disney, with commuter fares of $5.25 to Lakeland and $8.75 to Disney. The fares would be set by the operator to ensure liability and quality-control standards, state officials said. Fares could vary from projections, but the operator would be compelled to set fares reasonable enough to generate revenue. There is interest from high-speed rail operators with European experience, who met recently with FDOT officials, Haddad said.
"Amtrak is interested in operating such a service and will consider responding to requests for proposals once the information and terms are available," Amtrak spokesman Karina Romero said. Amtrak is federally subsidized.
The state estimates the creation of 23,000 direct and 48,880 total jobs during the four-year build-out. In addition, there would be about 600 direct and 1,100 operating jobs for the trains.
Five sets of trains each carrying 250 people at speeds up to 150 mph would be required for the Tampa-Orlando segment. A total of 20 to 25 would be required to serve the 361-mile Tampa-Miami route if the Orlando-Miami extension also was funded.
Plenty of competition
Twenty-four states submitted 45 applications totaling more than $509 billion for the $8 billion pot of high-speed rail stimulus gold. Florida has asked for $2.56 billion (plus $87.1 million to cover inflation).
The Federal Railroad Administration established six general evaluation categories, with transportation benefits as the top priority. That's followed by public benefits such as environmental quality, energy efficiency and expectations of delivering the project on time, within budget and as designed.
Next is sustainability of benefits, including a goal of 80 percent on-time performance, followed by the economic recovery benefits in creating jobs and the timeliness of completion.
Applications from Florida, California and the Midwest high-speed rail (Chicago-St. Louis and other Chicago-area extensions) appear to be the favorites for federal money, said Northwestern University's assistant dean of engineering and applied science,Joseph Schofer, who researches and teaches transportation planning and analysis.
"I'd be thinking of a market that could provide the real merit of high-speed rail possibilities," Schofer said.
Florida has been planning longer and is ahead in technical studies, he said. Schofer favors projects that have local money to leverage.
"There's not a lot of money to go around," Schofer said. "It might be practical to divide the federal money in two or three places, and where there's a real possibility of (start-up) within some fraction of human lifetime."
Florida's advocates say its application is favorable. Its funding request is supported by $572.5 million in right-of-way value along Interstate 4 and elsewhere. Plus, the trains could run soon â?? by early 2015.
California, by comparison, wants $4.7 billion for high-speed projects between Los Angeles and San Francisco. That's backed by voter approval last year of a $10 billion bond measure. However, the state's revenue situation could make bond ratings and sales dicey, competing states point out.
The America 2050 urban planning institute suggested that Florida should become a second-tier project, behind Northeast, Great Lakes and California networks.
The organization ranked 27,000 potential city pairs for high-speed service, and no Florida cities ranked in the top 100 city pairs.
Florida advocates say the report fails to account for a corridor's population growth, among other factors, e-mails on file at FDOT showed.
Greenbaum, the Citrus Park Disney aficionado, said jobs created by the rail project would be good.
"But it would be irresponsible to build a nice, shiny toy that does not have enough people to cover operational costs," he said.
Chris Stellwag, a CAE aviation simulator director of marketing from Celebration who is familiar with high-speed rail in Europe, sees the promise. Stellwag frequently commutes the 70-mile, 70-minute trip when all is well on Interstate 4 to Tampa.
"I could see myself taking it from Disney to Tampa, providing I could get to my office near the airport," Stellwag said. "The biggest benefit to me would be using that hour of travel to work instead of taking phone calls on the cell phone while driving."
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