Friday, March 6, 2020

Hillsborough's Leaders Ride the Train to Failure

Yesterday a group of "Hillsborough leaders" took a tour of SunRail SunFail, Orlando's commuter rail that has been the envy of our "leaders" for years. But the horror! The county commissioners got stuck in traffic, and they missed their train!
People are spending hours sitting on I-4 trying to get from one place to another,” SunRail’s deputy program manager Sandra Gutierrez told the Hillsborough contingent. 
“You talk to these people who have transformed their commute from a highway system to a commuter rail system, and it’s just night and day.”  I think we had that true life experience today,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp quipped, after meeting up with the others later in the morning.
What a nightmare! If we only had SunRail in Tampa Bay we'd never experience traffic jams again. 

Yet the real horror is Hillsborough's leaders plans to replicate SunRail failures in Tampa Bay.

Driving I-4 through Orlando these days is a horror. Most of it is under construction throughout Orlando to improve driving conditions as part of the Ultimate I-4 FDOT project. Yet most sections of I-4 in Orlando have 150,000 riders per day, compared to SunRail's 150,000 per year. Why would drivers put up with the mess and congestion and unforeseeable delays on I-4 when they have SunRail?

SunRail suffers from the usual maladies of rail. It goes where the tracks are laid, not where you want to go. It takes longer door to door. It does not leave or arrive when you need. 

Much of the article reads like a fan magazine for rail and our Hillsborough (cheer)leaders. 
Transit supporters are hoping that SunRail, a freight-turned-commuter rail service, could be a model for a similar venture using CSX rail lines in Tampa. 
[Hillsborough County BOCC member Mariella] Smith left the two-hour session with Orlando transit officials with one prevailing feeling: envy. 
“It seems like a lot of community partners and energy, from private sector to public grant funding," Smith said while waiting on a platform to catch a train back to the cars that brought them. "A lot of things came together and it happened very quickly.”
Envy. Not common sense.

"A lot of things came together and it happened very quickly.” How quickly?
Negotiations with CSX in Orlando started in 2004, followed by an agreement with local governments in 2007. In 2010, the Florida Department of Transportation committed to paying for the rail corridor and acquired it from CSX the following year. Construction started in 2012, and the first line — 32 miles — opened in 2014.
I guess 10 years is considered quick for our Hillsborough (cheer)leaders. Perhaps they need to get out more.

Was it a success?
During its first year of operation, SunRail made a total of $7.2 million from a combination of fares, advertising and fees paid by CSX and Amtrak to run their trains through the corridor. However, SunRail spent a total of $34.4 million during that same year, ending it with a $27.2 million deficit and an average daily ridership of 3,700 passengers.
This is not success by any common understanding. It's amazing how our leaders conflate the failure of SunRail and believe it be a success. SunRail has done little to improve over the years, although SunRail has extended recently, and ridership increased marginally, it is still a huge money loser consistently with low ridership.

For reference, here is a snapshot the most recent data available from SunRail's 2018 Agency Profile report in the National Transit Database.

In 2018, it cost SunRail $42.28 for each passenger trip. Or $84.56 per person for a round trip commute if you're one of few lucky riders.

Yet converting several CSX lines in Hillsborough for passenger rail is a high priority in the Hillsborough MPO 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan.
Advocates, including [Hillsborough BOCC member Pat] Kemp, are interested in the 10-mile stretch between downtown and USF. Cost estimates vary, depending on the year and parameters of study, but it could cost $500 million to $1 billion to build and an additional $12 million in local annual operating costs.
As the SunRail car rattled along, Beth Alden, executive director of Hillsborough’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, listed off the benefits of a Tampa to USF line: It connects two of the area’s top three job clusters, it’s anchored by downtown and a major university, and it cuts through walkable neighborhoods with substantial bus ridership, she said. 
The latest projection shows rail ridership in 2040 at about 3,500 people per day along the downtown-USF stretch. That’s close to the ridership on SunRail’s first line, but on a segment that’s a third of the length.
Again, this downtown Tampa to USF is in the MPO's plans

Source: Hillsborough MPO 2045 LRTP Major Investments for Economic Growth Tech. Memo
Note these estimated costs from the MPO do not include right of way acquisition, design, or environmental studies, so the actual costs will be much higher. Nor does it consider the costs to actually buy the right to use the tracks from CSX, legal indemnification of CSX, which the State of Florida was highly involved for SunRail. Also be aware that the CSX lines under consideration are single tracked, so there will likely be additional time and expense to double track and have concurrent two way service. And by the way, this new passenger service will be based on diesel engine locomotives much like SunRail. Wait until the Sierra Clubbers Kemp and Smith find out about that.

Given the priority of Vision Zero in Hillsborough and Tampa, if SunRail is to provide further guidance, they might want to consider the high number of accidents involving SunRail. Unless rail supercedes Vision Zero in the transit activists hierarchy of needs.

This proposed rail segment does connect two major Tampa job clusters. Yet they estimate only 3,500 people per day riding the rails? Twenty years from now? Costing up to $1 billion, and $12 million a year?

Are you kidding me? 10 years of the operating cost alone could buy each of the 3500 riders a nice $34,000 car, and provide them much greater mobility and access to job opportunities.

For a reference point, traffic on I-275 at the Hillsborough Avenue interchange, which parallels the USF to downtown Tampa CSX route, averaged 179,000 per day in 2017.

The traffic on I-275 north of downtown Tampa likely will be around 250,000 by 2040.

What a tremendous amount of money for so little benefit for mobility and congestion relief.

Even if you are a fan of transit, you should be outraged about this time frame and expense, not to mention the low ridership. As a Facebook friend noted:
Now, rapid transit buses could carry the same number of passengers for less than $10 million per year, without the up front $1 billion price tag, and could be up and running by 2024, 16 years before the transit rail line. In fact, there are already express buses that service USF to downtown. Dedicated lanes could cut down travel time at a fraction of the cost of rail.
Bottom line?

An expensive 20th century rail line would not eliminate any of the cars traveling on I-275, even in 2040, when it's finally up and running.
A good ride sharing program could actually remove cars from the road far faster.

If people want to test transit, buses give a much easier way to test it, without the billion dollar up front commitment and high operating costs. 
So, why are Democrats on the county commission seriously considering a train transit that would be the most expensive to build and operate and the longest to get started? Graft? Stupidity? Both?
Let's not be envious of SunRail and replicate their failure in Tampa Bay.

We must use common sense.


  1. Was this tour publicly noticed and open to the public or did they violate the sunshine law

  2. Wow, yet another uninformed “journalist” posting a story about something they know very little about and are obviously biased against the subject they are writing about. Not exactly fair and balanced, or accurate for that matter.

    Let’s start with some historical perspective. Railroads built this country and Railroads, in particular Florida East Coast Railway, Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line built Florida. Men of vison like Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant were responsible for the development of the east and west coast of Florida respectively.

    Passenger rail is a money losing business and it takes County, State and Federal Government money to make it work. SunRail, Tri-Rail, MetroRail and Amtrak are the prominent railroad / mass transit options operating in Central and South Florida, all government supported in one way or another. Brightline, now called VirginTrains USA is the only private passenger railroad in the State of Florida.

    The Brightline model of developing the property around their stations and along the right of way has helped bring in the needed revenue to help support the railroad, along with higher fares than the other options. Seems that the County and State government officials could learn a thing or two about thinking outside the box and not just rubber stamping widened or Highways and Interstates as the only option they ever seem to approve.

    SunRail, Tri-Rail, MetroRail, Amtrak and Brightline are successful in some ways, yet not as successful as they could be if we had visionaries like Flagler and Plant involved in restoring the railroad routes of the past. More railroads, mass transit options would remove even more cars from our streets, but I guess people really like being stuck in traffic gridlock, right?

    Instead of another train bashing piece from somebody who clearly hates trains, how about writing about how many times and how many billions of tax payer dollars were squandered by our elected representatives at the County State and Federal level which denied the public the mass transit rail that they dearly need and deserve.

    1. So The Times "journalist" knows a lot about transportation? The politicians riding the train are transit experts? Are the politicians feeding the story to the Times stenographer "fair and balanced"? Your appeal to authority to the non-experts does not help your case, especially when we've been tracking, research, and writing on this issue for over 10 years.

      For some further historical perspective, another slightly earlier 19th century technology before rail was used to settle this country. Horse and buggy. The glory days of horse and buggy are gone, just like rail.

      The real point, as we back up with data missing from the Times report, is that rail is tremendously expensive and moves relatively few people. Not to mention we'd get 10 miles of rail 20 years from now. This is not a serious effort to improve anyone in Hillsborough's mobility. Roads are far from perfect, and are screwed up largely by the same political class that believes in transit miracles. But people vote with their actions of driving, despite the risk of congestion and delays, rather than taking the SunRail, which has been running for several years with poor ridership. Why is that?

      SunRail, Tri-Rail, MetroRail and Virgin are all failing, with no plans to improve ridership that will reduce congestion or encourage people to "get out of their cars" after spending billions. How much more do we need to spend?

      Virgin/Brightline told us they are not in the transportation business, they are in the real estate development business. At least they are honest about it. We have little issue (some, they are getting some govt backed loans) with their private plans. We remain skeptical, but its (mostly) their money at risk.

      We are not against transit, but trains are a waste of money and will not help this area. The lack of success on SunRail, and the others you cite confirm that fact. We would much rather see more buses and BRT, and BRT on managed access toll lanes shared with vehicles. It will be much cheaper to build and operate, is more flexible for changing mobility patterns, and can reach more people in shorter period of time than any rail solution. It does not support Transit oriented Development, but transportation is about improving mobility first and foremost, not supporting some developers. If the business case is sound development will occur. If the development can only occur if we reengineer our transportation network around it, we are sacrificing our mobility.