HIGH-SPEED RAIL:

Fla. has federal cash for project but lacks ridership -- report

Although it has received nearly $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail grants, Florida's tri-city rail project may not be the best use for that money, a new report from an urban planning group has found.

The report from America 2050 evaluated U.S. regions to find the intercity corridors that would have the highest ridership and displace other forms of travel. Lines in the Northeast Corridor and a proposed route connecting California's largest cities scored the best, while Florida's tri-city route connecting Orlando, Miami and Tampa ranked much lower.

The three separate lines averaged just over 13 points on the study's scale, compared to 20.15 points for a New York City-Washington, D.C., line and 18 for the Los Angeles-San Francisco route. The Tampa-Orlando line -- thought to be the system closest to completion -- also scored below lower-profile lines connecting Chicago to Minneapolis and Atlanta to Birmingham, Ala.

Still, Florida has gotten the second-highest amount in federal grants, trailing only California, and state planners say they could break ground as early as 2012. Rail advocates have looked to the state as their best shot of getting a system in place to act as a model for the rest of the country.

The report analyzed cities based on regional and city population density, employment centers, transit accessibility, air travel markets and demographics. Routes were analyzed as links between two cities rather than full regional networks.

Its authors cited Florida's lack of a "megacity" like Boston or New York as a reason for the state's low scores, noting that the tracks would be connecting comparatively low population centers without high employment density. However, the authors did not include tourism traffic in their report, which could have hurt the state's evaluation. The flow of visitors to Orlando's theme parks is expected to account for a good portion of the ridership on the lines.

Lines in the Northeast Corridor scored well, confirming the belief of many high-speed rail advocates that a Washington-New York-Boston network would be the most traveled and productive corridor. That corridor has received less than $200 million in federal grants, but Amtrak is exploring significant upgrades to existing services.

The report backs the Los Angeles-San Francisco line, which has gotten more than $3 billion in funding, and says a Los Angeles-Las Vegas line also would see strong ridership.

The report also shows potential for some lines that have not received as much attention, including a Washington, D.C.-Richmond, Va., line and another connecting larger cities in Texas. The latter project has gotten $6 million in federal grants for some early planning work.

The report's authors say their approach would be the best way to evaluate and distribute federal funding for the high-speed rail program. Currently, the funds are given out through competitive grants that account for several factors on top of ridership, including environmental impact, right-of-way acquisitions and local support.

"America 2050 strongly believes that investments in [high-speed rail] will be essential to the long-term economic success and mobility of the nation and its megaregions," said Robert Yaro, co-chairman of the group. "The report recommends, however, that the federal government adopt a data-driven, ridership-based approach to choosing rail corridors for federal investment in the future in order to direct funding toward projects with the greatest market demand."

The report represents another blow to the Florida high-speed rail network after a report last week from the conservative Reason Foundation found the project could cost taxpayers $3 billion (E&ENews PM, Jan. 6). Gov. Rick Scott (R) has not said whether he will continue the state's project, saying he needs to see a feasibility study before he can make a decision.

Click here to read the report.

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