Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Is CSX Trying to Sell its High Priced Junk to Us?

CSX is offering to sell some of its under utilized tracks around Tampa Bay to the Florida Department of Transportation.
There are 97 miles of railroad track connecting the downtowns of Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa. The steel grating links Tampa International Airport to the University of South Florida, stretches across four counties and reaches as far north as Brooksville.
Freight trains run on those tracks now. But they could, one day, form the spine of a passenger rail system that would finally connect Tampa Bay — and ease the region's dependence on roads.
This is no pie-in-the-sky scenario. It's an idea gaining sudden momentum because railroad giant CSX Corp. is shopping around two segments of its Tampa Bay routes.
 CSX is interested in selling two lines.
One of the rail lines offered by CSX is the "Clearwater line." It stretches from downtown St. Petersburg, climbs northwest through Pinellas County to downtown Clearwater, veers to Oldsmar, then runs east past Tampa International Airport and ends near downtown Tampa, in Ybor City.
The second route is the "Brooksville line." It starts in Tampa, juts north from the first line, passes by USF, cuts through Land O'Lakes in Pasco County and finishes in central Hernando County, near Brooksville.
Urged by local leaders, CSX analyzed its lines and found that those two routes carried minimal freight traffic and could be used for passenger rail.
Here's where the tracks run CSX wants to unload.

CSX rail lines for sale
(in red and blue)
We should note a few things.

This is not a light rail solution. If realized, this will be a commuter rail solution. That is, big, heavy, noisy, diesel trains, on existing CSX tracks that were originally built for efficient movement of freight. It is not commuters, or people heading to the ball game or the art museums or the latest event in a downtown park.. Want to convert to light rail? Not going to happen.

These tracks are where they are. They are not optimized for Transit Oriented Development, if anyone believes that myth. They do connect the downtowns of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater, as well as Tampa airport and USF or at least close enough, but in a rather meandering way. They're not helping major residential communities such as Brandon, Fishhawk, Keystone-Odessa or New Tampa, and misses major job corridors around Westshore, I-4, I-75, and Pinellas Gateway.  Good for Brooksville, nothing for Brandon.

The only segment worth anything for commuters is the downtown Tampa - USF, and perhaps up to Land O' Lakes. The rest is pretty worthless, but its a packaged deal from CSX. The Tampa - Clearwater - St. Petersburg route will be too time consuming for most who already have a car and will still be able to drive where they want in less time. The downtown Tampa to airport route suffers as well, unless you have time for a not so scenic circuitous route.

There are other CSX tracks in the Tampa Bay area that are not currently listed for sale. Namely a line that from downtown Tampa, paralleling the Selmon Crosstown south of Gandy into the Port Tampa City area, as well as those in the east county Brandon area. Expect those to be offered for a nice price, but after the initial sale of the junk.

But it does go all the up to Brooksville! I guess the urbanist crowd is eager to sell the utopian dream of Transit Oriented Development to Brooksville.
Urged by local leaders, CSX analyzed its lines and found that those two routes carried minimal freight traffic and could be used for passenger rail.
In other words, at best CSX does not need these lines, and may be money losers for them.  If they can dump those lines and get a top price from the FDOT, perhaps several times anyone else will pay, and we will let them continue to use the same lines with no liability (see Sunrail), why not?

Who's the sucker that wants to buy them?

Also, it's likely that CSX will want to retain some rights or lease back some ability to continue to run freight on these lines, likely constraining transit schedules.

At this stage, costs, ridership and timelines are unknown. We do know that Orlando's SunRail has regularly missed ridership estimates, and has no long term funding source beyond the existing state of Florida and now some new federal subsidies. Tri-Rail in South Florida is continually subsidized by the state as well, and neither has made any difference in congestion relief.

CSX will not sell its lines to local municipalities, only to the FDOT, so it will take a lot unforeseen planning and coordination into all our Tampa Bay transportation related "plans" across several Tampa Bay counties and FDOT to bring this to fruition. Don't hold your breath.

The Times editorial writers are a bit more cautious.
The prospect holds some allure. With some modification and addition, it could link the University of South Florida with a multimodal transit hub in downtown Tampa, with future high-speed connections to Central Florida and light rail or modern tram connections to West Shore, Gateway and downtown St. Petersburg. A spur line that runs down to the northern edge of Tampa International Airport could theoretically link air passenger traffic to Clearwater and USF. Westchase residents could commute quickly to downtown Tampa and USF. Depending on the sale price, right of way costs could be significantly lower than most alternatives.
But none of those potential advantages necessarily justifies what could turn out to be a suboptimal rail network — even if federal and state governments shoulder three-quarters of the cost, as they did with SunRail. Other than for the USF-downtown Tampa leg, ridership levels could be weak for decades.
Most important of all, the CSX network bypasses what transit experts call the "home run line" — a direct, dense light rail route over the Howard Frankland Bridge between downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg that includes the area's major employment and residential hubs as well as TIA. Commuter rail systems are too heavy to cross the Howard Frankland. The CSX purchase will work only if it augments reasonably quick construction of that home run line.
"[R]idership levels could be weak for decades." A brief awakening from the rail cheerleaders.

Note the lack of the "home run line" between Tampa and St. Petersburg, crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge. We can expect rail proponents to claim that FDOT has agreed to beef up the transit corridor for their plans to replace the north bound span in the next 10 years or so, and adding commuter rail is no big deal.  But don't expect them to cite any costs. The transit corridor FDOT committed to to was for managed bus toll lanes, which is a manageable cost we support. To beef up the structure to add light rail adds nearly $1B to the HFB plans. Commuter rail is even heavier, traveling faster, so we can expect the costs to be even more than light rail. Regardless, any rail solution over the HFB is a non-starter as it will reduce capacity for hurricane evacuation routes, and will have to be shut down in any wind conditions exceeding 35 mph for light rail.

The fundamental problem of rail is it goes where rail goes, not where people go. These CSX lines were designed to move freight, and to repurpose them to move people where people want to go will be costly. If SunRail and Tri-Rail are any guidance, it won't help with their daily commute or relieve congestion, and will continue to be a drain on the taxpayer and the vast majority of residents who will not regular ride on this rail.

It's a suckers bet. CSX is trying to unload its junk on us.

Keep away from a bad deal, unless your goal is to urbanize Brooksville around a commuter rail station.

No comments:

Post a Comment