01 September, 2008

HAVE CORRINE BROWN AND FDOT BYPASSED JACKSONVILLE ON AMTRAK?

One of the Last of the old school streamliners was the City of Miami, a often full train left out of the Amtrak System between Miami-Jax-Birmingham-Memphis-Chicago/St. Louis. Here we see her pulling away from us at speed on a cold Jacksonville morning. Symbolic? I hope not.

I Want To Know Where Jacksonville Terminal Station Fits Into This Plan!


By LINDSAY PETERSON
The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA - As passengers settle into the wide, reclining seats, the train pulls out of Union Station at the edge of downtown Tampa. After rolling through Ybor City, the silver locomotive picks up speed, whizzing past Brandon subdivisions and Plant City farms until it rolls into Lakeland 40 minutes later. The next stop is Kissimmee, 16 miles from Disney World, then downtown Orlando.

This isn't someone's vision of the kind of rail service they'd like to see. It happens every day on the Silver Star, an Amtrak train that stops in a dozen cities across Florida. There's one problem: You might not get back home the same day you leave, because Amtrak runs so few trains to these cities. But state and federal lawmakers want to change that. They're working with Amtrak and the state Department of Transportation to create a service that commuters can use.

The discussion began last month, when the state's plan to create a commuter rail system in Orlando stumbled in the Legislature. Lawmakers began looking for other ways to bring more passenger rail service to the state - especially after supporters of the Orlando plan said that its failure would doom efforts to bring commuter rail to Tampa.

Weeks earlier, Amtrak officials had visited Florida to talk about its efforts to run more trains on its established routes. Amtrak probably can't take the place of the multiple-stop system planned for Orlando, but it could add trains to its routes connecting Tampa, Lakeland, and several cities in the Orlando area and South Florida. It uses the same tracks that officials had planned to use for the Orlando system and would share several stations along the way.

Several lawmakers and state Department of Transportation officials met with Amtrak representatives in Tallahassee this month. Amtrak Vice President Anne Witt told the group that the agency had no interest in running commuter trains, but it could link several cities' commuter and light rail systems.

"It's all very preliminary," said state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, "but I think people got very excited thinking about what's possible."

With gas topping $4 per gallon, people are ready to give up their cars, said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who recently voted with the majority in the House to reauthorize Amtrak for the first time since 1997. The measure included $2.5 billion for improvements to its intercity routes across the country.

"I see a great potential for Amtrak to take off in Florida," she said.
Already, dozens of people take the Silver Star out of Tampa every day - retirees, college students, families traveling to Orlando, Miami and other cities along the train's East Coast route to Boston.

Michael Durham, 22, of Altamonte Springs, rode the train from Orlando to Tampa on Wednesday to meet his family vacationing in Indian Rocks Beach. The train was running three hours late because of work on the tracks north of Orlando. "Other than that, it wasn't bad. It was cheap," he said. A round trip between Orlando and Tampa costs $18. If there were more trains, "I'd probably use it to come over here to see my friend on the weekend. It'd be great for that."

The Cost Of Expansion
About 22,000 commuters leave Polk County every day to work in the Tampa or Orlando areas, according to the Central Florida Development Council, a group that promotes business in Polk County. About 7,000 travel from the Tampa area into Polk.

As things are now, they wouldn't all be able to take the train. "The trick is, how do you get from the train station to where you want to go?" marketing manager Jim DeGennaro said.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and others with the new Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority are working on that part of the problem in Tampa, mapping out a light-rail system linking downtown with the West Shore area, Tampa International Airport and the University of South Florida.

"I'm very optimistic," said Dockery, who helped organize last week's meeting with Amtrak.

But expanding Amtrak service in Florida won't be easy. It means negotiating agreements with the company that owns most of the state's freight rail lines, CSX Transportation. The Jacksonville-based freight company has said it doesn't want more passenger trains on that line between Tampa and Orlando, not without financial help from the government to expand the line's capacity.

The state took a different approach in its effort to bring commuter rail to the Orlando area. About two years ago, it began negotiations with CSX to buy 61 miles of track between DeLand and Poinciana. The deal ended up with a $649 million price tag, which included the cost of helping CSX expand a parallel set of tracks into a hub it plans to build in Winter Haven.

Several state lawmakers questioned why it cost so much to buy just 61 miles of railroad tracks. Dockery also worried about the additional freight trains that would come through Lakeland on their way to and from the Winter Haven hub.

What finally killed the deal in the Legislature, at least for this year, was a CSX demand that the state take liability for any accident involving a passenger train, even an accident caused by a CSX freight train on the tracks.

As lawmakers who favored the deal began working to revive it for next year, Dockery and state Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, began talking to Amtrak.

The Amtrak Alternative
It's not the first time state officials turned to Amtrak as an alternative. In 2000, the DOT put together an intercity rail plan using Amtrak instead of a high-priced proposal for statewide high-speed rail.

The high-speed system would have connected Tampa and Orlando first, using the state-owned right-of-way along Interstate 4. Promoted by Dockery's husband, C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the effort ultimately failed in a statewide referendum.

The state's 2000 Amtrak plan also named the Tampa-Orlando route as one of the busiest, projecting that by 2010, more than 16 million people per year would travel the 90 miles between the two cities. It estimated that more than 15 million per year would travel the 230 miles between Orlando and Miami.

"I don't know why we abandoned that plan," Paula Dockery said. DOT spokesman Dick Kane said the plan had not been abandoned but that Amtrak doesn't typically operate commuter systems like the one Florida envisions in the Orlando area. Amtrak "will definitely be part of the study parameters" as the state develops its intercity rail plan, Kane said.The advantage of working through Amtrak is that federal law gives it the right to use existing freight lines, as long as its use doesn't interfere with freight train traffic.

It might not be as expensive as buying the lines, but increasing the number of Amtrak trains connecting Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville will still cost money, Dockery said. It may require building a set of tracks next to the existing ones, which could cost tens of millions of dollars.

A possible source of money emerged this month when Congress reauthorized Amtrak. "We'll need to fight for the money through the appropriations bill," Castor said. "But we have people who believe in rail in the appropriations committee."

The bill also includes money to study the restoration of the Sunset Limited, which used to run through Florida to New Orleans but was discontinued after Hurricane Katrina.

A Liability Study
Castor said that if the bill gets final approval, Florida will have a good shot at a grant because one of its House members from Jacksonville, Corrine Brown, a Democrat, is head of the Transportation Committee's subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.

Brown wants to see more Amtrak service in Florida, she said, but her first choice of routes is the one between Miami and Orlando because of tourist travel between the two places. Also, she said, Florida stands a better chance of getting federal money if it gets commuter rail going in Orlando.

"The state needs to show its commitment," Brown said.

Castor is trying to help solve the liability hang-up, she said. She and three other House members have asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to study the liability agreements of all passenger rail agreements between government agencies and freight rail companies. One of the three is U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Another state, Massachusetts, is in a battle with CSX over its demand for liability protection in a track purchase deal similar to Florida's. Amtrak has given CSX liability protection in several of its contracts with the freight carrier and has had to pay millions to resolve liability cases.

The request asks the GAO to review court cases involving the type of liability agreement CSX wants and what the agreements cost states and other rail agencies, such as Amtrak.

It also asks that the review be completed by Dec. 9, before Florida's next legislative session.

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The arguments rage to this date, "Should have never been built," "waste of taxpayer money," "Doesn't go anywhere," "Nobody rides it..." etc. Bottom line is we have it, and it is finally showing signs of life. Simple extensions to the Stadium, San Marco, and the area of Blue Cross in North Riverside would turn this little train around. Addition of Park and Ride garages and multimodal transit terminals at the end points would bring on the crowds. The video must have been shot on a Sunday Morning, as downtown is certainly as packed with life as any other major City on weekdays. Jacksonville is a city of Bikes, joggers, walkers, buses and cars, one almost wonders how the photographer managed to find this quiet moment.

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