In terms of high-speed rail funding, the thinking of the current Department of Transportation is easy to understand: Of the dozens of projects proposed across the country, only one could offer true high-speed service and open before the end of President Obama’s second term, all within a relatively tight budget. That is Florida’s 84-mile Tampa-Orlando link, expected to be complete by 2015 at a cost of less than $3 billion. It is therefore no surprise that in the latest round of grants for fast train services, the project has been awarded enough money to virtually ensure its construction.
The DOT’s announcement, expected to be formalized on Thursday, will hand Florida $800 million of the $2.5 billion in total allocations from the Congress’ FY 2010 budget. The Sunshine State now has $2.05 billion in federal funds to complete its $2.7 billion project, including the $1.25 billion it received in January. A further $300 million is expected to follow in 2011 thanks to the $1 billion in additional funds expected to be earmarked for high-speed rail nationwide in the FY 2011 budget. This would be enough to pay for the whole line.
Of the remaining $1.7 billion to be allocated this week, $902 million will go to California, primarily for the construction of a new line in the state’s Central Valley, between Merced and Bakersfield; Iowa and Illinois won $230 million for a link between Chicago and Iowa City; Michigan received $150 million for the Dearborn-Kalamazoo line; and Connecticut landed $121 million for the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield connection. Several other projects, like Virginia’s Washington-Richmond corridor, Oregon’s Eugene-Portland line, and the Atlanta-Charlotte connection, won smaller planning grants. Of these projects, only Florida’s and California’s plans would produce true high-speed rail, operating at maximum speeds above 150 mph.
Unless Republican political foes of high-speed rail shut down these projects after November’s elections (likely in Wisconsin, possible in Ohio and Florida, unlikely in California), these funds are likely to be spent on actual construction, as were the $8 billion in funds distributed earlier this year. Once the DOT makes this week’s allocations official later this week, I will discuss their national implications.
But Florida is the biggest story here: In almost fully funding the state’s first line, the federal government is hoping to produce a model for the rest of the nation to eventually emulate. The Obama Administration, despite inducing a sea change in thinking about the role of intercity rail in American society, also has been rather incrementalist in its thinking. The government has steadily embraced the concept of high-speed rail but the Administration has not been particularly successful in making the issue big enough to ensure a massive Congressional allocation — yet.
Florida, because its project will be the first true high-speed rail line in the U.S. and will be done relatively soon, will be judged on its effectiveness and therefore serve as the standard for future U.S. fast train projects. That means the state has a particular obligation to ensure that the program is implemented with few or no cost overruns and that it is able to attract high ridership once it opens. If it is successful in the eyes of the media and the political class, increasing funding for this transportation mode will be virtually assured. Otherwise, far more ambitious schemes like California’s San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, will likely remain on the sidelines.
The Florida line will include five stations, in downtown Tampa, Lakeland, the Disney resorts, the Orange County Convention Center (pictured at top), and the Orlando Airport, and is expected to attract 2.4 million riders in its first year. Though trains will accelerate to up to 168 mph, express trains between Tampa and Orlando Airport will make the trip in 50 minutes — roughly 100 mph on average. The majority of the line will be built in the median of Interstate 4 by a public-private partnership responsible for construction, rolling stock, and operations. It is expected to be chosen at the end of next year, after an RFP review beginning in March.
A future extension to Miami would come next; this week the federal government also provided Florida several million dollars to study that project.
As I’ve argued several times before, Florida’s high-speed line is far from perfect. Most problematically, it includes no station in downtown Orlando; its highway alignment also limits associated development possibilities in Lakeland.
Nevertheless, the Obama Administration is right in its focus on this project. Florida’s interest in attracting foreign investors in the line’s construction and operation means that the corridor is likely to be well-run and offer a surprising alternative to the mediocre (and under-funded) Amtrak intercity service too many Americans think is as good as it gets. The fact that this link will be operationally profitable won’t hurt, either. By ensuring that the state gets its corridor up and running as soon as possible, the Obama Administration will be providing a model for the quality and undeniably exciting benefits of true high-speed rail, no matter its limitations in this context.