New commuter rail

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The idea of commuter rail barely gets lip service in metro Atlanta, but Florida has just opened another new line, this one serving metro Orlando. Today, a supporter trumpets the economic development that has accompanied the SunRail project, as well as the promise of relieving congestion along I-4. A Florida State University professor writes about the high costs of construction and operations, and how metro Atlanta’s density doesn’t merit this transportation option.

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New rail gives Florida edge

By Mark Wilson

At the Florida Chamber of Commerce, we are leading efforts to make wise investments in the long-term economic well-being of our state. The new SunRail commuter rail system is an example of economic development through regional collaboration and public-private partnership. Without question, mass transit has challenges, but we stayed the course and, as a result, Florida is winning.

With nearly 20 million residents, Florida will soon surpass New York to become the third largest state in America. Under Governor Rick Scott’s leadership, Florida has created nearly 600,000 private-sector jobs and welcomed a record-breaking 94.7 million tourists to Florida in 2013. By 2030, six million more residents will call Florida home. Florida is literally on the move.

Central Florida, part of a mega-region which includes Tampa Bay, is striving to compete globally and grow smarter. Regional leaders, like Jacob Stuart at the Central Florida Partnership, are paying attention to lessons learned from the growth of Atlanta, Dallas, Salt Lake City and others.

Central Florida’s SunRail will do more than simply improve transportation. The area’s inaugural rail transit project – spanning four counties and 61.5 miles – promises to change the region’s economic landscape.

Already, SunRail has spawned nearly $1.7 billion worth of new and planned development within a 10 minute walk of SunRail’s 17 stations. These projects represent an impressive 17,000 construction and permanent jobs for the region. And that’s before SunRail even picked up its first passenger.

This kind of private-sector investment immediately adjacent to SunRail stations is staggering. But it didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly didn’t happen by accident.

While planning SunRail, Florida’s Department of Transportation worked closely with the Florida Chamber and regional leaders to ensure that it would actually enhance the economic vitality of surrounding areas. Equally important to the development of the project was the state’s strong recognition of the importance of a vibrant freight rail network serving Central Florida. SunRail operates on one rail line through Central Florida, yet goods can still move to and from the region via rail on a separate, upgraded line. This balanced attention to the needs of passengers and freight ensures that Florida’s growing logistics industry will continue to thrive. The public-private partnership also ensures that passenger trains will not displace freight trains, a scenario that would be counterproductive to alleviating highway congestion.

Florida’s holistic approach to transportation planning ensured SunRail had the backing of a broad-based coalition of public officials and private business leaders. As the project developed and stations began to take shape, so, too, did a groundswell of grassroots support for what commuter rail could offer the region – an efficient transportation solution to perennially congested Interstate 4, which runs through the middle of Orlando. An astonishing 12,000 tickets were pre-sold to excited consumers.

Crescent Communities recently broke ground on its first Central Florida project, a multi-use transit-oriented development planned for downtown Orlando, on a lot that has languished for nearly two decades. SunRail was the catalyst.

Similar developments are under construction in suburban Lake Mary, or nearing construction in Longwood. Orange County has adopted a Station Area Concept Plan for its Sand Lake Road station in an underdeveloped, industrial area. Florida Hospital has made a multi-million dollar investment to expand its flagship campus on the north end of Orlando.

SunRail provides a desperately needed transportation alternative for workforce commuters while maintaining Florida’s position as a global trade hub. Because of SunRail, Central Florida will forever change – for the better. Yet an even greater legacy is the collaboration it took to make it happen. The same win-win cooperation between public and private partners that made SunRail a reality will help us move forward and achieve other goals.

That’s a competitive edge that Florida will take.

Mark Wilson, a University of Georgia graduate, is president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Road won’t reduce congestion

By Samuel R. Staley

Florida has launched its first commuter rail service in nearly 25 years. Many hope it will bring needed relief along the congested corridor linking Jacksonville and Orlando. Unfortunately, experience suggests these hopes are closer to fantasies. Atlantans should take note or run the risk of investing in an fiscally unsustainable transit black hole.

SunRail, like a distressingly large number of public works projects, had a painful and costly birthing. The original project was expected to cost $615 million and another $432 million to buy right of way. The final cost was closer to $1.2 billion, and all the necessary right of way was not purchased. Florida Governor Rick Scott even stopped work on the project in 2011 to review what seemed like alarmingly high spending.

Many of these concerns took a back seat in the first week earlier this month when the 30-mile SunRail line opened to the public full time. With 40,000 riders during the first four days, proponents gleefully pointed out ridership was more than double forecasts of 4,300 daily riders. Trains were near capacity, and complaints were flowing in about the lack of straps for standing travelers.

But this good news is likely to be short-lived. Almost all recent transit projects see high levels of ridership at the outset. These effects are magnified for SunRail because the $2 fare has been waived for the first two weeks of operation to encourage ridership.

No one expects Sunrail to meaningfully reduce congestion either. In fact, the project’s environmental impact statement basically says the impact on congestion is zero.

While the full costs of SunRail won’t be known for years, a sobering reality check can be found three hours south with Tri-Rail, the 70-mile commuter rail system along the “Gold Coast” that links West Palm Beach to Miami.

Tri-Rail is considered a success after nearly 25 years of operation. Ridership increased 62 percent since 2002, to 4 million trips (about 2 million riders), according to the National Transit Database. More impressively, fare revenue has nearly doubled over the same period.

But this is where the good news stops. Fares cover just 21 percent of operating costs, and the service is delivered at the whopping cost of $13.88 per trip. Operating costs increased at twice the rate of ridership and 50 percent faster than revenue between 2002 and 2012. Thus, Tri-Rail has become less financially sustainable over time as each new passenger has cost more to serve than the revenue the traveler generated.

Commuter rail in Atlanta is likely to fare much worse. While the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metropolitan area, with a population of 5.8 million people in 2013, is slightly larger than the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell metropolitan area, the Miami metro area is one of the nation’s densest urbanized areas. Densities rise as high as 18,000 people per square mile within a few miles of downtown.

The Atlanta metro area, in contrast, has one of the nation’s lowest regional densities with just 2,173 people per square mile. Densities peak at slightly more than 8,000 people per square mile—slightly higher than the density for the entire Miami metro area — within a mile of downtown, but drop to less than 4,000 people per square mile within five miles.

A better and more cost-effective strategy for Atlanta as well as Florida’s burgeoning metropolitan areas would be to invest in flexible and adaptive bus systems such as Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT. Experience in the US and abroad has shown that BRT can provide transit service comparable to rail — in travel time as well as comfort — for a much lower cost. Bus systems can also be adapted more easily to changing residential, employment and travel patterns.

Policymakers in both states would fare much better by focusing on these less expensive and adaptable alternatives than continuing to support costly and inappropriate rail projects that ignore contemporary travel preferences and raise costs.

Samuel R. Staley is a senior research fellow at the Reason Foundation and director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University.






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