Commuter rail has been big talk around Orlando and Central Florida for several years. Last year the Florida legislature came so close to approving the rail-line, but things broke down because the attorneys wouldn't tolerate giving CSX Transportation limited liability. That's actually pretty bizarre considering the Tri-Rail in South Florida and most other similar projects around the country have this limited liability language as standard boiler plate contract language. After all why would CSX be motivated to sell and leaseback their own rail-line if they didn't have this language built into the lease???
Regardless, this is my big question "Is commuter rail really all it is cracked up to be?" I certainly realize that in big cities like New York and Washington as well as many other countries that traveling by train is very commonplace. The big difference between those places and Orlando is that here you can't put the trains underground because of the high water table. So you end up with a main train line on existing train tracks above ground. Tracks that have been in place since the day of the Florida cowboy (late 1800's) and don't necessarily represent existing traffic patterns that well. Granted that much of the train tracks do partially mirror the Interstate-4 corridor, but that is about all.
In places like Deland, Sanford, Lake Mary, Altamonte Springs, and Orlando south of downtown the tracks get pretty far off of the main traffic corridor and do not pass through the main business or population areas of those cities. Another big question is, "How do the people get from their homes to the train tracks?" I've heard things like build big parking garages around the tracks - which still puts tons of cars of the road and costs additional hundreds of millions of dollars and thus may never get built. I've also heard of building spur tracks which also costs additional hundreds of million of dollars and will cause existing businesses to get bulldozed to make way for new tracks. The third is increasing bus lines to the tracks, but bus service has always been extremely unpopular in the Orlando area and I don't see that changing anytime soon.
So what is the answer to that question of how to get people to the actual rail stations? I don't know.
The other $64 question is "Will it really reduce traffic and save infrastructure costs?" The Tri-Rail line located on the CSX tracks in South Florida runs through Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade County and has been in existence since the 1980's. It has been a huge money pit for the South Florida area for 20+ years now. South Florida has 2 major limited access highways that run north to south through it, Interstate-95 and the Florida Turnpike and both of those roads are still jammed with cars every day. So the Tri Rail only has had limited impact on traffic even though I am sure there are plenty of riders now-a-days with the way the economy has gotten. Some people even called the Tri-Rail expansion a big boondoggle.
I know that commuter rail is definitely a wiser idea than putting more cars on the road, but I don't know if it is truly the answer to the traffic problems of Central Florida. It will probably never make a profit in my lifetime, but maybe it isn't supposed to. The money to buy the tracks supposedly has all been set aside by the State of Florida and federal government. I think it is only a matter of "when" and not "if" commuter rail will come to Central Florida. Hopefully something good will come of it, and it won't be another giant money boondoggle for the metro Orlando area.
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