Last week I had the fortune to attend the FRA/Amtrak and High Speed Rail dog and pony show.
The event was held at (of all places) the Orlando International Airport Marriott. They billed this as part show, part workshop, and explained it would take the whole afternoon. The only two from Northeast Florida, were a metrojacksonville.com writer and your intrepid Jacksonville blogger. Since the Orlando Airport is nearly impossible to get at from Orlando, we rode together, via automobile, over interstates suffering from a solid week of pouring tropical rain.
The room designed for perhaps 150 persons must have had all of 300 packed into it. It was a Who's Who of Florida Transportation, with just about anybody and everybody from law makers, FRA and Amtrak officials to county planners, TOD developers and city transit agencies.
We heard all about some $8 Billion dollars that was up for grabs and that we alone were near the top of the list. Window dressing, I bet every City on the tour hears the same line. They explained some pretty basic stuff like "What is a Train", "How Florida HSR in the middle of I-4 will help stop sprawl", and enlightened us with news such as "We already have 4 distinct Amtrak Routes in Florida." (Guess that must mean the demand is now there for 3400 trains a day). Oh the 4 distinct Amtrak Routes? Hold on to your chair, I'm not kidding here; the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Auto Train and the SUNSET LIMITED! Say what? Apparently no one in Tallahassee realizes that the Sunset Limited no longer runs into Florida, and probably never will again. Oh it will come back someday but it will be a Florida - New Orleans service likely under the old "Gulf Wind" name. Frankly when I stopped laughing, I wondered why they hadn't named the Champion, Miamian, Palmetto, Silver Palm, South Wind or Floridian.
The gist of the whole show is this is what we have in our hands (money), and here are a few of our ideas. After that it was we'd like to hear your ideas. Amtrak made a presentation that they'd love to give Florida a California Corridor type service but the State would have to help pay for it, or at least beg for it. Fat Chance.
The "our ideas," part was just as "government lame" as the first part. We sat at tables and answered vague questions such as. "If you had billions to build HSR what should it look like in 2 years, 10 years, 30 years, and how would you measure success..." Uh, sorry y'all but if I had Billions of dollars I'd be in Cartagena.
One interesting thing did come about at my table, where I became the "Table Captain". Doc Dockery was in my group. For those who don't know Doc, he is the man almost single handily responsible for the Florida Overland Express (FOX) HSR project. He even financed the issue to get it on the ballot a few years back, only to have JEB Bush find a way to kill it.
I told Doc I don't like the idea of using I-4 as it will encourage more sprawl, nobody lives on I-4. When that thing was built FDOT bought up the countryside and managed to build it between Orlando and Tampa with not a thing in between but MICKEY MOUSE. So towns building North from the old railroad mainlines, current Amtrak routes, will have to build several miles out to meet the new train. When I explained my second problem with the route of choice, running from Orlando Airport to Tampa's Airport, and how far anyone in Orlando would have to drive to just get to the train, Doc told me, "That's where a major Light Rail Project will have to fill in..."
I started humming the M I C K E Y M O U S E song and everyone had a good laugh.
At first it looked like Doc wasn't going to agree with the rest of the table that Amtrak Corridor service MUST come first so we can build toward HSR ridership. It was more of a "Just build it and they will come," mindset. I can't see success in that plan, in a state built by the passenger train, and one that has completely turned it's back on rail, to the point of hostility, it just won't happen. The Cascade Corridor, California Corridors, North East Corridor all started off with frequent fast Amtrak services, then up graded into faster and faster , and even more and more services.
With the problems of the whole state solved, I really only have one huge complaint. Where the hell was Jacksonville? JTA had it's planners showing people around downtown, while the upper brass was hearing the mayor talk about fountains, and park space downtown. While all of that might have been important, was it $8 Billion dollars worth of important? Does Jacksonville realize why they are not on the Florida Corridor map? The Secretary of Transportation, warmly greeted me and said, Bob, all Jacksonville has to do is ask to be included. Images of thousands of travelers coming down the Southeast Corridor, arriving in Jacksonville, and then taking a bicycle to Orlando, in order to board FOX. Then it dawned on me, we're still Brain Dead in Florida.
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