Travelers need high-speed rail
February 7, 2010
Of the dozens of issues worth debate and analysis concerning the proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, the one most people are asking is: Who will ride it?
It's an important question, because if the train attracts too few paying customers, it will fail in its other missions of attracting upscale development and business, boosting the state's economy and relieving some congestion on Interstate 4.
Empty seats are a waste, and at 160 mph, they would be an enormously expensive waste.
We join the rail supporters and transportation experts who believe it will be heavily used.
Many of the people who disagree are making flawed assumptions. They assume I-4 won't get more congested and dangerous in years ahead, or if it does that it can be easily widened.
They assume driving costs will stay about what they are now and that any visitor wanting to go to Orlando from here would rather rent a car. They assume local bus and transit service will never get better.
Because their experience with rail is limited to the slow, inconvenient service offered in Florida by Amtrak, they don't consider rail to be a serious transportation option.
They picture a typical family going from Tampa to Disney World. To take the train, this family would have to drive to the downtown Tampa station, find a parking spot, walk to the station, buy tickets at perhaps $25 each, and wait for the train. By the time they get rolling east, they could have been a third of the way there in the family car.
The fact is, this family would not use rapid rail, except for the novelty of traveling at airplane speed across the countryside.
Under ideal conditions, the train would shave only about a half hour off the 90-minute drive.
The fact that most travelers will be better off driving does not refute the utility of a fast, inter-city train. Most people don't go to the hospital on any given day. Most people won't go to the theater to see the most popular movie. Most people will never eat at a city's best restaurants.
And most people won't ride the train, but many thousands of people will, with significant economic impact.
The theme parks and professional sports teams will offer package deals, with a train ticket and shuttle service included in one price.
Regular train riders, such as commuters and business travelers, will buy monthly passes at reduced rates. For a one-time trip to Orlando, you think about gasoline but forget the total costs of driving, which are about 50 cents a mile, or about $80 for a round-trip from here to Orlando.
Tour groups will be organized. A retiree uncomfortable navigating I-4 might join a group for a bus ride to Tampa and then a quick train ride to a theme park or Magic basketball game.
Business travelers will be lured by hotels that provide free limousine service to and from the station, just as they offer it now from the airports.
And speaking of airports, Hillsborough and Pinellas will benefit from a fast, direct rail connection to the more than 30 million people flying in and out of the Orlando airport each year.
The train will not compete with the airlines for this trip because the airlines aren't even trying to serve it, unless you connect through Miami. For trips of less than 300 miles, fast trains are quicker and much more efficient than airplanes.
Now that the federal government has promised Florida $1.25 billion to get the project started, it is appropriate to look closely at the costs and benefits.
In that calculation, the advantages of a safe, fast, convenient, weather-proof alternative to I-4 should not be minimized.
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