Last week, a little noticed press release from a railway in Florida laid a new piece in the Florida rail puzzle. All Aboard Florida, owned by Florida East Coast Industries, Inc. (FECI), announced plans to connect south Florida with Orlando with high(er) speed passenger rail by 2014. The $1 billion project would be privately funded, running mostly on existing track and a projected new 40 mile spur to Orlando.
Paulus Magnus of Reason and Rail has been covering this story in depth. He and his followers (in comment sections) have been pointing out several interesting aspects of this story. Streetsblog Capitol Hill is also covering.
Can They Get it Done on Time? Several aspects of the project need to be fleshed or thought out a bit more. That last 40 mile spur to Orlando won’t be easy, complicated by the as-of-yet undisclosed location of a final station (the airport or Disney or somewhere else?). The choice of train cars does not seem to be settled, and given the long lead time for purchase orders, seems to bump into the aggressive time line.
Real Estate – This is the most fascinating part of the story. Florida East Coast Industries was acquired by Fortress Investment Group in 2007, which separated the railroad and real estate subsidiaries into two separate companies—Flagler and Florida East Coast Railway—so each could focus on its primary line of business. The $1 billion investment won’t likely come from passenger rail, but through the combination of rail and real estate. Of course 2007 was a tricky year to do anything in real estate, but it may not matter. In the end, it is the long range performance that the company is teeing up.
Magnus looked into their individual parcels and highlights this midtown piece, which used to be a rail station and is near both Metrorail and Metromover stations.
Amtrak – While comparisons to Amtrak are certain, several quirks about FECI’s trains, tracks, market and operating environment will not be easy to replicate. FECI’s track alignment balances and orchestrates freight and passenger rail, a thorn in Amtrak’s side elsewhere in the U.S.
Speed – The ultimate speed is still not really clear; it seems to top out at 110 mph, which average speeds between 60 and 80 mph. This is certainly competitive with auto travel. The company will add Wi-Fi and other amenities not found in a confined car with children or clients.
It is also interesting to see how the rail company is positioning itself. From their brochure, they note:
All Aboard Florida is: A privately owned, operated and maintained passenger rail system will bring:
• Taxpayer costs savings from reduced highway maintenance
• Lower carbon emissions
• Economic boost from new construction and operating jobs
• Increased tourism
• New transit-oriented development opportunities
• Increased revenues from rising property values near stations, which can be used for local programs (e.g. schools, parks, public works, police and fire protection).
So why does this matter?
First, this is not the be-all project that immediately spawns a new era in rail. But it is a missing link that fills several critical gaps:
- This story is gaining steam with conservatives. Given the market signals on the promise of rail, great rail can be the focus of attention as anti-rail forces become marginalized
- The company itself is touting reduction in carbon. While it is not a predominant theme, they use the word - carbon.
- Smart growth-ers need to contact the company and the state and local transportation/planning officials to offer support. That support is no longer rail/no-rail, but good project versus off-the-charts great project.
- Florida has new planning rules. While the sometimes-stifling process of dealing with state planning is no longer a big deal, this project will hopefully expose where even 2011 rules don’t match modern needs. I am specifically thinking of the new sector planning process, which has a 15,000 acre minimum. Urban projects need concentrated focus on a much smaller footprint and with tools to deal with the complexity. The 15,000 acre sector plan is for new towns in the middle of nowhere, which means a really useful tool got turned into sprawl accelerant. Let’s get real about small area planning for urban areas and use it here.
- The link to other transportation options. The downtown Miami location offers great connections to get you where you need to go - subway, walking, cabs, ports, circulators. The Orlando link will be the trickiest but offers a "dream big" moment for all types of existing and as-of-yet invented vehicles and technology.
- This private sector project might offer clues on how to sequence other fixed guideway investments to coordinate public and private sector improvements. The lesson here is not that private investment is the only way to go, but to see how private projects might stimulate more effective public and public/private projects.
A big Hat Tip to Dave Brook at www.carsharing.us for the heads-up on this story.