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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Monday, January 18, 2010

Improving Rail Service in Florida--Part 1

There is a vested interest in providing Florida with top-notch passenger service since it is a tourist hotbed. Everybody--from Amtrak, to the French, to the Koreans--wants in on the action, whether it's high-speed or conventional service. 

In the case of Florida, there should be a special agency set up for conventional train service. The hypothetical Amtrak Florida could combine the aspects of California and North Carolina, two other states which have their own state-supported routes and go out of their way to promote their trains. Through a special agreement with the national carrier, Amtrak Florida would have its own schedule for in-state travel (just like CA) and attendants at stations that don't currently have Amtrak agents (just like NC). Currently, North Carolina is the only state in the Union that has a special attendant agreement. What would be different from NC's setup is that at certain suburban stations and tourist towns, the FDOT attendants would be allowed to sell tickets for intrastate Florida trains (long-distance tickets would continue to be picked up via the Quik-Trak kiosk at these locations).

A lot has been said about Florida's past high-speed hopes. I do know this though, the state was once a hotbed for rail travel, and the fact that it has been whittled away to virtually nothing is a crying shame. There are some states that deserve to receive the HSR funds from the Obama Administration, but the Sunshine State is on the wrong side of that ledger.

Ever since at least the mid 1980s, the state has been on the high-speed bandwagon. Each time, it has seen its hopes of the fast train go up in smoke. In 1999, ex-Governor Jeb Bush killed the Florida Overland Express upon taking office. In November 2000, FL voters approved a constitutional amendment to mandate an HSR system, but that was repealed just four years later by the same voters who were convinced by Bush that it wasn't necessary. This is one reason why Florida should not receive any of the stimulus funds from D.C. How many times will state officials get to strike out?

Second, there is a lack of connectivity between Tampa and the Orlando area. Most people have pointed out that a new intermodal center in Tampa for local and regional transit doesn't make much sense for HSR when historic Union Station is nearby and rarely used despite renovation. In Lakeland, the planned HSR station is north of town vs the current downtown location of the Amtrak station. 

Third, instead of building a fast-speed system that would likely serve upscale travelers and tourists as its primary base, the state needs to reconsider and produce a consistent, medium-speed system that serves many Florida cities, and it must buy the tracks that were abandoned by CSX along the S-Line route in the central part of the state!

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