Monday, February 21, 2011

Florida and High-speed Rail

Three Diesel Locomotives
"Three Diesel Locomotives - Downtown Orlando Amtrak Station"
Olympus E-3 with Zuiko Digital 50-200mm
1/800s, f/3.5, ISO 200, 169mm

The situation in Florida is getting interesting with regards to high-speed rail. On 18 February an email was sent to me by the office of Senator Bill Nelson (D Rep 9th District) which said, in part:
A bipartisan group of the state's political and business leaders have pursued high-speed rail in Florida for decades, because it means more than $2.4 billion in economic aid, thousands of construction jobs and a modern transportation link between several of the state’s largest cities. That’s why I support it. I’m joined by state lawmakers and many members of Florida's congressional delegation, who also question the governor’s decision to kill high-speed rail. One is U.S. Rep. John Mica, the Winter Park Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee. Also, federal transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, has expressed disappointment.
It is interesting how a long-time Democratic representative invokes the name of two Republicans in chastising our new Republican governor. Strange times make for strange bedfellows.

But let's concentrate on the quoted sum involved: $2.4 Billion.

On the same date an article appeared in the on-line version of Wired titled "Time To Commit or Quit on High-Speed Rail." In that article it was reported that the Obama administration wants to spend $53 Billion over the next six years. Let's hang on to that figure for a moment.

Another cost figure I keep seeing bandied about is the cost of rail/mile. I keep reading that it costs anywhere from $40 Million to $80 Million per mile. The only citable article I could find with that figure was published in May 2007: "French Engineers Set Rail Record — With a Bullet." In that article is the following interesting paragraph:
High-speed trains and Japanese or German Maglev train systems have been reported to cost $40- to $80-million per mile. Public and private studies show that only Maglev technologies costing under $20 million per mile can be fully self-sufficient. (emphasis mine)
The following table represents a classic back-of-the-envelope ROM (rough order of magnitude) cost estimate of five routes that would make sense to build. You'll note that Orlando is in the middle of most of it. I've also priced out a line between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, since that's actually the shortest route and makes better sense than a route between Orlando and Tallahassee or a north-south route between Tampa and Tallahassee.

RouteLength (in miles)Cost (at $40MIL/mile)
Orlando to Tampa65$2.6 Billion
Orlando to Miami233$9.3 Billion
Orlando to Jacksonville141$5.64 Billion
Orlando to Daytona Beach56$2.24 Billion
Jacksonville to Tallahassee164$6.56 Billion
Total659$26.36 Billion

All these numbers are based on an "optimistic" assumption that high-speed rail cost/mile is only $40 million. Distances between cities were calculated via Google Maps, and is the distance from city center to city center using the expressway system. Pessimistic estimates will automatically double all the figures.

What is bothersome about all of this is the following:
  • The federal government wants to give Florida $2.4 billion for the Orlando to Tampa route. Assuming my optimistic ROM is close to reality, that leaves a $200 million shortfall, which is still quite substantial. I find it hard to believe that local businesses would make up the difference.
  • The federal government wants to spend $53 billion over six years for nation-wide high-speed rail. If Florida were to build all the routes in my table (and I believe those routes are the routes we should build), then Florida's high-speed rail system would easily consume half of that.
  • For high-speed rail to make sense, then a high-speed rail system needs to be built interstate (i.e. between the states) as well as intrastate. I shudder to think the amount of time and money that that would take, even assuming the most optimistic of circumstances. That $53 Billion that President Obama wants to spend becomes a laughably small drop in a very large funding bucket.
  • And once built, it's going to cost non-trivial amounts of cash to keep the road bed, rails and trains up to a minimum standard for safe high-speed transportation. And equipment does wear out and needs replacement. All this adds up to a system that won't be cheap to ride. If you don't believe me, then just ask the Chinese.
Ignoring the politics of the matter, the financial issues surrounding high-speed rail don't look good. Somebody, somewhere (and I'm looking at you, Mr. Obama) really needs to pull together real numbers to support their position in all this. Because until they do, crazies like our own Rick Scott are going to come off like wise defenders of the public trust, which they damn sure aren't. This fight for high-speed rail is beginning to turn out like the loosing fight for the 2010 mid-term elections. If high-speed rail is that important (and I believe it is) then the Democrats and the Obama administration do us all a great disservice with their sloppy, amateurish and unprofessional support of this critical issue.

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