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Will Florida Imperil the Future of High-Speed Rail?

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With the full backing of President Obama and $8 billion in federal grants awarded last year, it seems that the dream of high-speed rail in the U.S. will be a reality by mid-decade. The first HSR line, connecting Tampa and Orlando, will be open for business by 2015. With the pressing need to reduce the country's dependence on oil, to relieve our overcrowded highways and airports, and to remake the way our communities develop, HSR can't come a moment too soon.

But once the first train rolls out of the station and picks up speed -- eventually reaching 160 miles per hour -- will HSR attract enough riders to be declared a success? Will it have the power to transform Florida's sprawling, automobile-dependent landscape into more sustainable forms? There is a whole lot at stake; if Florida's HSR line doesn't attract enough riders and is perceived as a failure, it will difficult for future lines in other cities and states to secure the necessary political support to move forward.

When $8 billion in federal HSR grants were awarded last year Florida received $1.25 billion, allowing the state to prepare for construction to begin in 2012. Two other states, California and Illinois, also received hefty awards. But Florida's line will likely be completed first, thanks largely to a ballot measure approved by Florida voters in 2000 that set HSR plans into motion even before there was any hint of federal funds.

This early planning surely made Florida's plans attractive for the Obama administration as decisions were made about which plans would get early support. Florida's plan, with a price tag of $2.6 billion, is also relatively cheap when compared with California's plans for a $42 billion line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco and, ultimately, San Diego. The Tampa-Orlando line will also travel mostly through sparsely developed areas, unlike California's line, and land acquisition has largely been taken care of.

Assuming Florida does not have trouble coming up with the additional $1.3 billion needed to complete the line (it is thought that 80 percent will come from the federal government and 20 percent from local sources), Central Florida will have the U.S.'s first high speed rail line in full operation by 2015. But while the state and federal government are investing significant sums of money into the project, decisions being made at the local level may endanger the ultimate success of the Tampa to Orlando line.

First, high-speed rail will actually never reach downtown Orlando, a sprawling city with 235,000 residents surrounded by a metropolitan area of over 2 million. Instead, after serving Disney World and the Orange County Convention Center, the train will terminate at the airport. While this may be convenient for tourists, it will make it impossible for a business traveler to get from downtown Tampa to downtown Orlando without using a car.

And even though Florida threw its support behind SunRail, Orlando's first rail transit service, in order to win federal HSR money, there are currently no plans to link the HSR line with SunRail. Without a direct connection, trips between Tampa and Orlando will continue to be made by automobile. If HSR isn't attracting a significant share of these types of trips, it will have trouble attracting enough riders to meet projections and keep the system operating in the black.

Another stop is being planned for the city of Lakeland, situated midway between Tampa and Orlando. The city will inevitably become a desirable bedroom community for those that wish to work in either Tampa or Orlando, and ridership projections show that half of all intercity riders will come from Lakeland. This small city of 94,000 will directly benefit from billions of dollars of federal and state infrastructure investments. But instead of laying the groundwork for dense transit-oriented development, the stop in Lakeland will instead likely generate more sprawl in Central Florida, running counter to the goals of HSR.

City and county planners need to be working actively to promote walkable, mixed-use developments near the Lakeland HSR stop. Instead, as Yonah Freemark points out at the Transport Politic, "walkable connections to the future rail station would be tenuous at best."

Observing how things are developing in Central Florida, the Obama administration should be thinking hard about how it awards HSR money in the future. Granting federal funds for HSR should be contingent on how well local communities are planning to accommodate increased density in a sustainable manner. This means that if local governments want to receive billions in HSR investments, they must be willing to make land-use changes that allow for the development of mixed-use, transit-oriented communities. Additionally, HSR funds should be contingent on local investments in mass transit.

Tampa, on the other hand, is making smart decisions about how HSR will connect riders, businesses, and residents. The city has plans for a multi-modal transportation hub downtown that would link HSR, buses, light rail, trolleys, and automobiles. This November, Tampa voters will decide whether to approve a sales tax that for the construction of a light rail system. Considerable support is building behind the proposal, though the anti-tax movement has a chance of defeating the ballot initiative.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio understands the stakes. Last month during an update on Florida's HSR progress, the Iorio emphasized the need for local communities to take all the necessary steps to achieve the benefits of HSR. "The weight is great on our shoulders to do it right," she stated. The future of HSR in the U.S. could depend on it.

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