Sunday, January 16, 2011

With More Federal Funding, Florida in Striking Distance of New High-Speed Line

In sinking $800 million more into the Tampa-Orlando line, Obama Administration is making clear its interest in making this the nation’s model program for fast trains.

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.

ARC Project Definitively Cancelled, But There Are Other Ways to Improve New Jersey’s Transit Future

Capacity on New Jersey Transit can be expanded by transforming the system.

Access to the Region’s Core was to be the nation’s largest investment in transit, ever: At a cost of $8.7 billion, the project would have dramatically expanded rail capacity between New York and New Jersey by doubling the number of rail tracks available for use under the Hudson River. The result could have been a large increase in service on New Jersey Transit’s commuter rail and Amtrak’s intercity rail operations.

The project is now dead. After a two-week review demanded by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has reaffirmed his decision to stop all work on a scheme for which he argues the state has no money. In other words, the ARC tunnel is low on the Governor’s priority list and certainly not worth raising taxes for: Instead, he has increased transit fares by more than he has road tolls and has done nothing to shore up the major deficits looming in the state’s Transportation Trust Fund. In consequence, Mr. Christie has shown himself to be uninterested in investing in infrastructure for the state’s future.

It’s a disappointing coda to a month of suspense about a project that plenty of New Jerseyans assumed was guaranteed after construction began a few months ago. And it means that it will be virtually impossible to add any more New Jersey Transit or Amtrak trains between New Jersey and New York — for several decades.

All hope for the future of transit connections between the two states, however, is not lost.

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak have a unique opportunity to take advantage of the limitations in tunnel capacity to reform the way they do business, to improve and speed up operations in ways that will bring some benefit to their customers but also seriously increase the number of people that can travel under the Hudson River to work every day. Without making changes, trains will become more and more packed and the total ridership of the services will be limited.

Here’s a comparison worth taking in: Whereas New Jersey Transit carries roughly 275,000 riders a day on its entire rail system, Paris’ RER Line A — one corridor, running through the center of the city using just two tracks — is able to handle a million users daily. It’s a squeeze, and the region is planning to build an relief line, but it still works. How can New Jersey Transit be facing such constraints with so many fewer riders?

The explanation is the agency’s steadfast adherence to the rule that commuter trains are different than rapid transit ones — primarily, that they have to offer each and every one of their riders a comfortable seat. This limits maximum train capacity to about 1,400 passengers when using ten multi-level cars such as the ones pictured above. While this may seem like a lot of people, with only limited tunnel capacity there are only so many trains that can make the trip into Manhattan during peak hours. If the agency were to simply remove a dozen seats or so per car and replace them with standing areas, trains would be capable of carrying up to 2,000 people apiece. There’s a huge bump in capacity, at virtually no cost. The RER A has a relatively even mix of standing and seating areas, and that’s one of the primary reasons it’s able to move so many more people.

Of course, this would come at a comfort cost to the people who now ride the trains, since what had once been a comfortable ride may be replaced by a standing-room only train. But that may be the price to pay if New Jersey Transit wants to ensure that it can transport all the people that need to get into New York City every day.

Amtrak would not be able to make a similar compromise, since it would be unreasonable for any intercity rail service to force its riders to stand, but the lack of additional Hudson River capacity should encourage the national rail operator to expand the length of its trains so that it can carry a larger number of people using the same amount of tunnel space. It is outrageous that the Acela Express service — which hogs 20 of the slots through the Hudson tunnels in each direction daily — only has six passenger cars, one of which is half-filled by a cafe. All of the stations at which these trains stop have the ability to handle at least two more cars per train; if Amtrak desired, it could add these cars to its current rolling stock.

In other words, neither New Jersey Transit nor Amtrak need more capacity under the river right now. They simply must find a way to adapt their existing operations to these newly imposed constraints. Will they be able to do so, or will they leave some potential customers behind?

Governor Christie has been a weak proponent of transit, as is manifested by his decision to cancel ARC. Yet the sudden availability of $3 billion in Port Authority funds once dedicated to the project and the theoretical availability of a similar amount of state money once designated for the program mean that this is also an intriguing moment for thinking about new ways to invest in New Jersey’s transit system. If Mr. Christie obliges, rather than insisting that local dollars go to roads and encouraging the Port Authority to spend away in New York City, some of the funds could go towards the rehabilitation of the Northern Branch and Passaic-Bergen corridors; others could be spent on improvement projects in the Philadelphia suburbs. These would have a minor effect on overall travel patterns compared to the ARC tunnel but would be far less expensive and still worthwhile.

While harping on the importance of ARC has been an essential effort — how else to defend it? — at this point Governor Christie is not going to change his mind. Thus transit proponents have a responsibility to find constructive, helpful ways to define a different mobility future for New Jersey that does not include it, at least for the next few decades. They have a choice: Should they let Mr. Christie control the transportation agenda entirely by refocusing the state’s funds on roads? Or can they play an important role in demanding that the limited funds are spent on prioritized investments that will benefit the state’s public transportation network?