Saturday, February 26, 2011

Florida High-Speed Rail … The Monster that just won’t die

Just as in the horror movies, where the best efforts of pitchfork armed citizenry and repeated mortal blows fail to subdue the local monster, Florida high speed rail still continues to haunt us. It just can't be killed. Governor Jeb Bush killed it in 1999. But the zombie came to life again in 2000 in the form of a constitutional amendment. In 2004 the voters again killed it.

But the monster still lives, courtesy of the Obama administration. The administration wants to make Florida a gift of $2.4 billion to begin the first leg of the system. This project is wrong because Florida will have to assume any cost overruns and operating losses of at least a billion dollars annually; it won’t save the traveler significant time; and energy savings will be miniscule at best. If Transportation Secretary LaHood thinks it is such a good idea, he should turn the program over to Amtrak and let it shoulder the long term burden. But he doesn’t. Like so many other federal programs, he pushes off these unfunded mandates onto the states.

Our new governor Rick Scott, like his counterparts in Ohio and Wisconsin, rejected the government's offer. Governor Scott is wrestling with a projected state deficit of $3.6 billion and adding a billion or so more each year just doesn’t compute. Still, a group of legislators from Tampa and South Florida are attempting to form an authority to keep the project alive but doubts remain that they can put a viable plan together. LaHood set a deadline for this past Friday (Feb. 25) but has extended it until March 4, a sign there may be problems getting parties in agreement.

Costs of High-Speed Rail

Back in 2000, a study was made on the costs of the full system (Tampa to Miami). It projected losses for the full system at $617 million to $1.6 billion (in year 2000 dollars). From the Business Wire:

[I]nternationally renowned public policy consultant and transportation expert Wendell Cox has released eye-opening costs and data regarding Amendment Initiative No.1, which Florida voters will decide on Nov. 7,[2000]. According to the report, the estimated cost to construct a high-speed rail system connecting the state's five largest metropolitan areas would be between $8.2 billion and $21.9 billion; take 20 years to complete; and cost Florida between $617 million and $1.6 billion in annual deficits once in operation.

It’s safe to assume we are talking a billion or more per year in current dollars.

Time of Travel

Existing airline travel scheduled times between Tampa and Miami/Lauderdale are in the in the 1 to 1:05 hour time frame, compared to an estimated 2:30 to 2:45 hour/324 mile train ride. The route is covered by American Airlines and “two bags free” Southwest Airlines. Interestingly, all five metro areas have made plans to co-locate their train stations with their airports to save on parking facilities, putting the time comparisons on an even footing.

Prices are unknown, but using Amtrak's Acela service between Washington and New York (225 miles) as an example, the fares vary between $139 to over $200 depending on time of day and demand. This is in line with American Airlines($118-163 economy saver, super saver fares) but higher than Southwest ($69-123 wanna get away fare) to nearby Lauderdale.

In the case of the private automobile, which has the advantage of portal to portal service, the time difference is insignificant. Using a hypothetical traveler going from downtown Clearwater (near Tampa) to the Fontainebleu Hotel in Miami Beach and allowing for travel time to and from the airports, the time by train is 4:15 hours vs. 4:35 (MapQuest estimate) by car. And using your car saves renting one or using taxis at the destination. Conclusion: Air travel beats rail significantly in speed and cars, because they offer portal to portal service, are almost equal to high-speed rail.


On the energy side intercity trains have an advantage over cars. The most recent Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 29—2010 (Table 2.12, page 63 in the pdf version - for the wonks) shows Amtrak’s energy use at 2,398 Btu per passenger mile vs. 3,437 for cars, a significant advantage. But when the 324 miles of train mileage and the 275 road mileage are factored in for Tampa to Miami, the car passenger uses just 22% more energy for the trip. It must be noted that the Amtrak figures are primarily for trains limited to 79 mph. Trains, like cars and aircraft are bound by the same laws of physics and when you double the speed to 160 mph+, air drag and energy use increase exponentially. It is doubtful high-speed rail energy efficiency comes anywhere near standard (slow) speed passenger rail.

So, Governor, seize the wooden stake and drive it into the heart of this monster. And do it before dawn’s light.