Douglas C. Lyons
Sun Sentinel Senior Editorial Writer
7:27 PM EST, December 8, 2012
The folk from Florida East Coast Industries came in to see us this week, and after a 90-minute session, eight words kept ringing in my ears: "That's a conversation the community needs to have."
Husein Cumber, FECI's executive vice president of corporate development, used the phrase repeatedly when the talk went from inter-city passenger trains to commuter rail. All Aboard Florida may have been the priority in the meeting, but for many commuters, it's another story entirely.
For years, South Florida has clamored for commuter rail service on the FEC tracks. Visions of sleek passenger trains whisking riders between Miami and Jupiter, with stops in between, have danced in the heads of commuters stuck in traffic, transportation planners stymied by moving a growing population from one part of the region to another and elected officials salivating over the potential development that would come with a new rail line connecting so many downtown coastal communities.
There's already a train-station battle brewing between the cities of Oakland Park and Wilton Manors. Both have plans and space for new commuter rail stations on the FEC tracks. The only problem is that they are only half a mile apart. Something's got to give.
South Florida got its commuter rail line in the form of Tri-Rail. a 72-mile passenger train service that runs 50 trains a day during the week between Mangonia Park just north of West Palm Beach to the Miami Airport. In public transportation and mass transit circles, the commuter line is a success story. You'd never know it here, though, as all the buzz is to the east on the FEC tracks.
All Aboard Florida promises a three-hour train trip between Miami and Orlando. The trains – 32 per day – will travel at speeds of up to 110 mph once they leave South Florida. There will be stations in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach and each train will have its amenities, like fine dining and Wi-Fi. Train travel, we were told, doesn't quite cut it. The word Cumber used was "experience."
The privately held company's initiative borders on the historic. FECI wants to use its own resources to build and operate All Aboard Florida, and not go hat in hand to the government, which typically uses taxpayer dollars to build, operate and subsidize public transportation projects..
Well, sort of.
The FECI still wants to lease government-owned land along State Road 528 so they can build the rail link between Cocoa and the Orlando International Airport, and there's always the possibility the firm might seek funding from the Federal Railroad Administration to cover unanticipated expenses that come with such a massive project. "Loans not grants," Cumber emphasized.
Building a new intercity passenger train service is a complex project. Throw in the desire to add a commuter rail line, like Tri-Rail, and the complex becomes complicated.
FECI officials had already planned to pay for a second track along large portions of their rail corridor to accomodate the intercity passenger trains. Adding Tri-Rail would require a third track and most likely federal funding to pay for it.
Florida East Coast officials also wouldn't allow Tri-Rail to use its tracks without some form of compensation. Liability concerns that come with running commuter trains on the same tracks as freight will also boost costs. There are operating expenses to consider, too. The good news is the Tri-Rail proposal to route some of its existing trains on the FEC tracks won't spike operating costs.
The bad news is the state of Florida, which currently pays to operate commuter rail is getting out of that practice by 2019, turning the tab over to the counties. We often hear county commissioners gush over the idea of operating commuter trains on the FEC tracks, We've yet to see such enthusiasm in taking on the annual eight-figure expense of keeping those trains running.
The chance to hop a train in Fort Lauderdale to get to Disney World is exciting, but the opportunity to catch a commuter train to and from work and avoid I-95 traffic boggles the mind.
Somebody better start talking.
Douglas C. Lyons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.