The least effective rail scheme in the nation?

Central Florida presses on with its $1.2 billion, 61-mile SunRail project. About 2,000 commuters will use it each day. Is it worth the price tag?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Does Florida deserve a commuter rail line?

What if it didn't connect to Disney World? Or the Orlando airport?

The New York Times profiled yesterday the $1.2 billion, 61-mile SunRail project in Central Florida that aims to connect DeLand to Poinciana for the benefit of an estimated 2,150 commuters a day.

The system is scheduled to come online in three years and hopes to relieve considerable traffic congestion in a state that's known for its lack of density. But the project's execution has raised many questions about the work of state representative John Mica.

Eric Lipton writes:

Representative John L. Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has spent years badgering federal agencies, bullying state officials, blocking Amtrak naysayers and trying to bypass federal restrictions to build support and squash opposition to the commuter line.

Critics say Mica is giving freight operator (and campaign donator) CSX a "gift." Supporters say he's building a foundation for economic growth in the state.

Dig into the details, and the issue is a bit more complicated. The CSX track that already connects communities around Orlando has been used for decades by Amtrak. Per capita, rail is much cheaper than adding another highway lane to Interstate 4 -- $1.05 billion vs. $2.3 billion, Mica argues.

Controversially, Mica says Floridians' gas taxes have gone to support public transit in cities in the Northeast. (If that's the case, consider me surprised.)

More than 2.3 million people live in the proposed rail corridor, but the main hurdle is cultural: a Central Floridian without a car is harder to find than a talking mouse. Will they give up their wheels for a shorter commute?

There are other unsettling details: the line will run through Mica's hometown of Winter Park; it will use "experimental" train cars paid for with federal grants secured nearly a decade ago; many project stakeholders are Mica campaign supporters; CSX secured use of the rails at night.

Then there's the financial issue:

If fares do not cover operating costs after seven years, Winter Park and other communities with stations, which will already subsidize the construction of the system, would be required to make up any revenue shortfalls.

Surprising stuff for a balance-the-budget Republican.

Still, the region shows potential. The population of Central Florida is expected to more than double in the next five decades, according to an unspecified Penn Design study cited on SunRail's website.

The project is scheduled to be built in two phases; the first will cover 31 miles mostly north of Orlando. But it's hard to see how it will make a dent in Florida's overall mobility picture.

To wit:

  • The train will run every two hours during the day.
  • During rush hour, it will run every 30 minutes.
  • There will be no weekend service.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Department of Transportation ranks the project dead last among all nationwide projects in final design; still, the potential to drive economic development and improve air quality qualifies it for support. So it continues.

Whether you believe this project is worthy of support or not, it's another indication that infrastructure projects need strong vision and guidance from the highest level. Not unlike New Jersey governor Chris Christie's scuttling of a tunnel between his state and New York City -- a project far overbudget but a concept desperately needed -- the SunRail project demonstrates that these ventures take so long to politically develop that by the time they're ready, they're far overbudget, insufficient in addressing current problems and too far along to cancel outright.

Infrastructure requires substantial planning, investment and caution. But when it comes to the drawing board stage, perhaps a dash of Silicon Valley-style "fail quickly" would do taxpayers good.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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