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6/25/2009

News

Rail is dead. Long live rail
Why SunRail's demise isn't a bad thing

 

Barring an 11th-hour reprieve, on June 30 the state’s deal with CSX for a 61.5-mile, $600 million-plus commuter rail line between DeLand and Poinciana will officially go the way of the dinosaur. With it goes the aspirations and spent political capital of the legion of lawmakers who spent years pushing for SunRail – especially Orlando Mayor Buddy and U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Republican who has spent decades in Washington securing federal money for mass transit, only to watch the locals screw it up.

In the end, SunRail drowned in a toxic stew of Tallahassee political machinations, parochialism and a recession that sucked the life out of most big-ticket items (save Dyer’s venues, of course). After losing a climactic vote in the state Senate in May, dejected SunRail supporters threw a temper tantrum that any toddler would admire. Orlando city commissioner Patty Sheehan blamed the “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals” in the state Legislature.

“I think the forces of evil have won,” Dyer added. Perhaps there’s truth to the idea that conservatives’ knee-jerk opposition to spending on infrastructure improvements doomed SunRail. But if SunRail’s supporters want someone to blame, they should find a mirror.

SunRail’s many shortcomings are rooted in this simple fact: After the collapse of light rail almost a decade ago, our leaders were so desperate to get something done that they gave away the store (not unlike the new arena deal with the Orlando Magic, one could argue). The deal as presently conceived is a boondoggle, a corporate giveaway, an expensively ill-conceived effort that will subsidize exurban sprawl and do little to take cars off I-4.

We can do better. SunRail’s demise affords us that opportunity.

Back in 2006, the state’s Department of Transportation agreed to pay CSX $432 million for 61.5 miles of track. FDOT planned to invest another $173 million in improvement. According to critics, the cumulative capital investment of $615 million – $10 million per mile – makes this the most expensive rail purchase in U.S. history. Mica promised that the feds would pick up half, with the state and local governments splitting the rest. In turn, the state would lease the track back to CSX for off-hour freight runs at a fraction of the state’s maintenance costs.

To sweeten the deal – $10 million per mile isn’t sweet enough, apparently – the state also agreed to pay for any accidents associated with the rail line, even if CSX were at fault. If a CSX freight train crashed, Florida taxpayers would have been on the hook. State CFO Alex Sink said she wasn’t sure the state could find an insurer to underwrite that $200 million policy.

This deal, negotiated in secret, is the very definition of corporate welfare. And taxpayers wouldn’t get much in return. At best, projections forecast 3,500 daily riders – barely a dent in I-4 traffic – on a train that would top out at 45 mph and stop every three miles or so. It wouldn’t get you where you were going very fast. And if your ultimate destination weren’t within walking distance, you’d have to hop on the LYNX bus. As anyone who’s relied on LYNX can attest, that’s not a heart-warming prospect [see “Take the keys,” April 19, 2007].

SunRail supporters cast it as a down payment on what this region really needs: an intermodal network of light rail lines, buses and other mass transportation options that would efficiently link downtown, UCF, the airport, International Drive, Innovation Way and whatever other employment and entertainment hot spots emerge. Ideally, this network would hook up to federally funded high-speed rail lines that crisscross the state and render the car irrelevant – or at least, less necessary.

Commuter rail doesn’t do that. It subsidizes those who choose to live in the hinterlands. It papers over the poor growth-management decisions of yesteryear rather than encouraging smart growth. It’s not a cure; it’s a Band-Aid.

Light rail was a good idea torpedoed by special interests and political cowardice. Commuter rail was supposed to be the cheaper, more digestible alternative. Now that it too has imploded, maybe it’s time to step back and re-evaluate our options: If we’re going to spend the money, why not spend it on something that would actually work?

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