Florida on cusp of passenger rail renaissance

in Uncategorized by

Brevard County will soon make somewhat of a return to Florida’s glory days of rail travel by opening new passenger railway stations along the Space Coast.

Starting around 2015 in Titusville, with Cocoa and Melbourne soon afterwards, there will be points of departure along the same tracks Henry Flagler used to develop the state’s East Coast in the 1880s.  

Flagler the fortune he made as the founder of Standard Oil and invested in a rail system that would bring northerners down to the Sunshine State writes Scott Gunnerson for FloridaToday.com. Initially, trains would only serve as far south as Rockledge, making Broward County briefly the most popular tourist site in Florida.

As the speed and convenience of airline and automobile travel took precedence, passenger rail eventually phased out, and Florida East Coast Railway terminated in 1968.

With the heavy traffic and congestion on Florida highways, the state is again looking at passenger rail. Road construction is struggling to keep up with population growth, so trains are a sensible alternative, especially with existing tracks such as the century-old Flagler line.

For decades, transportation groups have tried to restore passenger service between Jacksonville and Miami, expanding beyond freight trains. Amtrak has proposed, as recently as 2009, a fixed route connecting the two cities, with stops in Titusville, Melbourne and Cocoa-Rockledge.

To make that happen, the Florida Department of Transportation and Amtrak must adopt an operating agreement with the Florida East Coast Railway, owner of a majority of the 351 miles of tracks, Leigh Holt of the Space Coast Transportation Planning Organization tells FloridaToday.

Florida East Coast Industries, with the “All Aboard Florida” plan, has other plans. FEC is about to be a privately owned intercity passenger rail service, the first of its kind in the country. The will provide passenger rail service between Orlando and Miami, but without stops in the Space Coast.

For a private enterprise to invest nearly $1.5 billion in high-speed rail, they must assume enough ridership to be cost-effective, DOT managers say. The state will also be studying “All Aboard Florida” plans, as a possible framework to replicate it in other regions, including the Gulf Coast.

Florida’s flat terrain and distance between major cities makes it the perfect landscape for passenger rail, but Tallahassee consistently blocked efforts for high-speed trains.

As governor in 2004, Jeb Bush led the abolition of a constitutional amendment requiring the development of high-speed rail, as well as vetoing in 1999 the creation of a $6 billion bullet train between Miami, Orlando and Tampa. 

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott also rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for an 84-mile rail system connecting Tampa and Orlando.

Often, say rail opponents, the key issues are sufficient population density for ridership and developing rail to go to the destinations people want.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.