01 July 2011

Spreading Sunlight on the Central Florida SunRail

In February 2011, newly elected Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) derailed the planned $2.4 billion Orlando to Tampa high speed rail project.  This rejection of the Porkulus Project agitated the Obama Administration and mass transit maniacs.  Yet after contemplating the situation for four months, Gov. Scott gave the green light to the $1.2 billion Central Florida SunRail project. This decision embittered Tea Party supporters. Why did he warm up to SunRail?

Part of the problem with the Orlando to Tampa train is that it was a top down decision coming from Washington to spend part of $847 billion Porkulous on projects that promoted the agenda of the self described most train-friendly administration in history, namely the Obama/Biden Administration. The fact that it would be under the auspices of Amtrak did not help as House Transportation Chair John Mica (R-FL 7th) likened Amtrak to the “Soviet styled train system” and probably was just as financial inefficient.

The fact that the Orlando-Tampa route would only have been 84 miles long with five stations along the way did not help as it could not reach “Supertrain” speeds yet it would require laying the special new tract.  Compared to a car trip, the proposed HSR section would not have markedly cut travel time nor would it have been cost efficient. Florida would have been responsible for potentailly $3 billion in cost overruns and the state would be on the hook for ongoing operation subsidies when it did not meet the criteria for successful HSR lines. In addition, residents of Tampa and impoverished agrarian Polk County would have needed to raise their sales tax by 1%.

Four months later, Gov. Scott approved the SunRail project.  Why?  The genesis of the SunRail was local.  Unlike the “Supertrain”,  the SunRail was conceived of locally in 1993 as a 61 mile commuter rail connection between five central Florida counties.  The Florida Legislature held a Special Session for the SunRail project in 2009 which stipulated that state would be responsible for 25% of the costs. State lawmakers in Tallahassee approved SunRail by votes of 84-25 in the House and 27-10 in the Senate.  Four of the five Counties (aside from Osceola) involved have already given near unanimous approval to the project and their associated costs.

Source: WOFL
Funding may have been another way to grease the rails.  Under the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Start” program, SunRail received 50% of the estimated $1.2 billion in funding from Uncle Sam.  The central Florida counties involved are responsible for another 25%. Even though the FTA ranks SunRail near the bottom of priorities, the influence of a Congressional Cardinal like Rep. Mica ensures action for his pet project.  Localities have also benefited from the Mica touch.  Chairman Mica’s hometown of wealthy Winter Park will have a new $1.8 million SunRail/Amtrak station thanks to the largess of federal taxpayers.

Source: Jacksonville Business Journal
A third facilitating factor was logistical.  SunRail is a commuter rail project, not a High Speed Rail extravaganza that required laying new track. So once Tallahassee blessed SunRail, it could buy the tracks from freight train carrier CSX for $432 million (including $150 million for track acquisition and $198 million for S-line improvements).  CSX embraced the SunRail change, as the commuter rail project will prompt a shift of the terminal out of Orlando to a $100 million new terminal in more rural Winter Haven, thereby improving its freight operations in central and southern Florida.

Anti corporate critics charge this CSX deal as being crony capitalism, as CSX is the largest corporate contributor to Rep. Mica.  In a similar track, liberal watch hawks note that other major Mica campaign contributors are central Florida real estate executives, who stand to benefit from building housing and commercial developments around the commuter rail stations.  This may be more than serendipity, but how many liberal good governance types are aghast that Joe Biden seems to treat Amtrak as a placement service for friends and family ala Freddie Mac?  And have these progressive politicos shined a spotlight on the connections that GE has with diesel locomotives and how they stand to profit from green ventures?  Not surprisingly, not many if any.

While it is refreshing that SunRail is not irrationally exuberant about rider-ship predictions, initially predicting 2,100 daily riders for the Phase I Deland to Sand Lake Road section, that seems shockingly low.  This lowball prediction is despite fares have been speculated to be $2.50 one way with a $1 per additional county traveled.  Area employers like Disney and Sea World have promised commuter connections to their workplaces.  While there is no stop at Orlando International Airport per se, nearby stations will have a bus connection.

The prospective low rider-ship has Tea Party activist steaming, as they are worried about a repeat of Tri-Rail, the commuter rail between Miami and West Palm Beach.  The 70 mile South Florida commuter rail has not come close to turning a profit since it opened in 1987. Even though it averages 13,000 passengers a day, Tri-Rail loses between $13-15 million a year.  Wags have speculated that for the amount of subsidy that state and local governments put into Tri-Rail, they could lease Nissan Altimas at $199 a month for all its current passengers.  With significantly less rider-ship, what prevents this from being another white elephant that binds Florida’s taxpayers.

Tea Party critics are concerned that after the FTA “New Start” funds are expended, there is no guarantee of future Federal funding.  But the state of Florida is obligated to cover any unanticipated cost overruns, and rail projects typically cost 40% more than the starting price.  The Federal matching funds only cover the first 32 miles of the project, which only includes 1 stop in Volusia County and no stops in Oceola County.  Localities are required to contribute even if Federal funding is delayed.  If there are problems after Phase I, Volusia and Oceola might reneg, which would require the state to cover, but by then Gov. Scott will most likely already have left Tallahassee.

The Federal funding agreement forces two changes to the SunRail plan which makes it more costly and less green.  Firstly, the fine print requires SunRail to operate between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. on weekends during Phase I.  This is stupid for a commuter rail system to operate on a WEEKEND, but maybe resort workers might not have typical work schedules.  The funding agreement does not authorize Self Propelled Units (Diesel Multiple Units), which Rep. Mica championed (and had campaign contributors in US RailCar) .  Instead, SunRail must commit to using old style polluting Diesel Locomotives.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.

The SunRail plan commits the state to purchase CSX’s rail lines.  Cost conscious critics question why the lines were not leased instead.  Was this a touchy liability issue or perhaps some crony capitalism?  Another suspect cost of SunRail is FDOT picking up $23 million cost for CSX to move from the Orlando Taft Freight Yard to Winter Haven.  CSX has promised to reinvest all of the $432 million from the sale to their Florida operations–surely some costs could have been lifted from Florida taxpayers. After all, Sunshine State Citizens are likely to pay 70% of the costs of the project.

Doing a cost benefit analysis on SunRail is complex.  The localities through their elected representatives supported SunRail, and it was approved by the Florida legislative and executive branches.  So as the axiom goes, they made their bed so now they can sleep in it.  Most likely, the Commuter side of SunRail will not be fiscally self supporting.  With such low rider-ship, it is dubious that commuter congestion on the I-4 will be significantly alleviated.  But the rerouting of rail freight through Winter Haven may make commercial transportation more efficient.  Moreover, it may lessen the danger caravans of eighteen wheeler trucks barreling down US 17/92 and the I-4 competing with resort workers and clueless tourists driving around Metro Orlando.

While Floridians may be concerned about the costs of SunRail, it pales in comparison to the extra $330 that the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority wants to assess on participating governments to bury the Dulles Airport metro station, so that it does not interfere with the aesthetics of the Eero-Saarinen designed terminal.

Gov. Scott has vowed that if SunRail proves to be a big boondoggle, it will kill the future of trains in Florida. Unless they are convinced otherwise by a slick monorail shyster.


Orlando @ International Transportation said...

Hi this blog is really good. I share this blog to my friend. This is really great job man. Keep update to your blog and keep posting realistic and good. The travels is more competion to our world. All the best for your future process good keep it up bye...

DCBarroco said...

Orlando--Thanks for the compliment. It's so rewarding when people appreciate your hard work. In figuring out where I stood on SunRail, I basically became an investigative reporter and wanted to share my information and analysis with those affected by the decision. Please check back often. You can subscribe via RSS feed, e-mail