Who is on board with passenger rail in Florida?

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Proposed commuter rail projects in Florida – SunRail (SR), linking Jacksonville with Orlando, and the Florida High Speed Rail (FHSR), which would connect Tampa with Miami via Orlando – offer a future vision of green travel in the Sunshine State. But several questions need to be answered before billions of dollars are spent to build either or both lines:

  • How confident can anyone be that the line will ultimately be used?
  • If people use it, will it truly offer a positive trade-off that benefits the environment and reduces America’s dependence on fossil fuels?
  • Where will the money to build and maintain these lines come from, and will it be at the expense of road repair?

A reasoned discussion of these questions is necessary, because cumulatively these proposals could easily cost more than $6 billion: $4.28 billion for FHSR and $1.0-2.0 billion for SR. The very fact that a billion-dollar variance for SR is kicked around should make any taxpayer nervous, because taxpayers in Florida and across the U.S. will pay for its construction. Over and above that will be operating costs relative to fare revenue, a function of usage. Almost all public transportation systems require subsidies, but no one feels good when car after empty car passes them at grade crossings.

Vroom Vroom
What are the chances Floridians will embrace passenger rail? Josh Dorfman, host of The Lazy Environmentalist (Sundance Channel), wrote a column in the Huffington Post in March 2010 that hits what many worry about where it comes to establishing new public transportation. His article, “Let’s Stop Debating Global Warming, Instead Convince People to Solve It,” relates his own revelation on human nature and environmental practices:

“Several years ago I invited John “Plasma Boy” Wayland onto my Sirius Satellite Radio show “The Lazy Environmentalist” to talk about eco-friendly cars. I had heard that he was having tremendous success drag racing an electric car called the White Zombie. He described the thrill of creating eight hundred pounds of torque and roaring down the quarter-mile track in record time. He mentioned how much fun he had teasing his competitors about the fact that he’d just trounced them in a car running on American-made energy instead of imported oil. He described exactly the kinds of things millions of American men care about – fast speeds, raw power, and American self-reliance.

“Sure enough our phones began to light up with callers from around the country. Many were commercial truck drivers calling from inside their rigs and wanting to know how they could get that electric power for their own personal pickup trucks. Did I care whether they believed in global warming? Nope. Not one bit. Because I realized in that moment that I didn’t have to convince these guys that global warming is real in order to get them fired up about the solutions that solve it. It was a hugely important lesson for me and one that I believe is essential for the environmental movement.

“As a green retailer, blogger, author, spokesperson, and radio and television host, I’ve learned that I’m most effective as a green communicator when I first take the time to understand what really matters to people and then demonstrate how environmental alternatives directly satisfy those needs. If that means talking about how eco-friendly electric cars deliver on speed, power, and independence from oil dictatorships then that’s what I’m selling. Words like “should.” “must,” and “sacrifice” don’t enter into my environmental lexicon.”

In other words, don’t expect rail lines to be used because people are so fired-up green. Will Floridians and tourists see personal advantages from rail use in terms of cost, convenience and enjoyment of the trip? Or will they miss what cars can do for them? Florida voters rejected a referendum to fund FHSR in 2004.

The history of urban planning is littered with good ideas that simply didn’t take off. Urban renewal of the 1960s left dozens of cities with empty blocks. High-rise public housing was built in many such voids, only to be abandoned a few decades later as failed social engineering experiments. No-car pedestrian-only streets in America strove to replicate European boulevards such as Barcelona’s Ramblas and Copenhagen’s Strøget pedestrian zone, but most such attempts in the U.S. led to retail decline. One example is Chicago’s State Street, which hastened the move of major retailers to car-trafficked Michigan Avenue. State Street has experienced resurgence since reopening to auto traffic in 1996.

But perhaps the best lesson is what happens when you put four-year-old children in a room with toy cars. Within a minute, they will be on the floor going “vroom vroom,” play acting how they will one day get around town with four wheels. This human instinct for car transportation has played out a billion times over since the middle of the 20th century.

It’s also what a billion Chinese are saying today. Their nominally communist country had a 21 percent increase in car sales in 2009 – bringing up total car ownership in China to just 2.9 percent. According to a report by Credit Suisse, the Chinese will increase their car ownership rates by a factor of five in the next ten years. Yes, the country has trains, but as more of their citizens arrive in the middle class, they want to travel with their own automobiles. It seems to be a pan-cultural instinct.

The train-car energy-use trade off
A study by the libertarian think tank Cato Institute urges us to consider technological developments when weighing transportation options. In particular, increased fuel efficiencies of cars offer the greatest dynamic and opportunity.

According to Randal O’Toole, a senior Cato fellow, “Even if we could get more people to ride transit, transit uses as much energy, and emits nearly as much greenhouse gases, as cars; and the trends suggest that cars will be more environmentally friendly than any transit system in the country by 2025.”

OK, we expect a bias in that direction from the libertarians. The freedom of one’s own wheels seems far less a forced, collective experience than sharing a rail car with 40 other people on a dictated scheduled. But a look at fuel efficiencies of various modes of transport today (compiled by Cecil Adams, author of The Straight Dope syndicated column) yields supportive numbers even with 2010’s predominant technologies:

  • Motorcycle/single rider: 2,200 BTUs*
  • Heavy rail (includes subway and commuter rail but excludes light rail/streetcar): 2,600 BTUs
  • Commercial aircraft: 3,100 BTUs
  • Bus: 4,300 BTUs
  • Auto: 5,500 BTUs with single occupant, 3,500 BTUs with average passenger load

*BTUs: British Thermal Units per passenger mile

It should be no surprise that autos are the biggest per-passenger, per-mile energy hog. But as Adams notes, rail is only 30 percent more efficient than today’s cars. If 35 m.p.g. efficiency standards become the norm, the BTU burn for a single-occupant car will be 2,300, slightly better than heavy rail. Also, bus systems in places like Chicago have very high usage, yet still net out with a relatively high BTU rate. In suburban systems, the numbers can go even higher because usage rates tend to be lower – consequently, the environmental benefits of public transportation diminish or cease to exist entirely.

Adams, whose columns run in alternative weekly newspapers that tend to have an urban,  young adult and liberal bias, discusses other variables in the equation. Yet he criticizes a 2007 report, “Public Transportation and Petroleum Savings in the U.S.” from the American Public Transportation Association, which claims that public transportation reduces gasoline consumption by 1.4 billion gallons.

Why? “The key word is gasoline — or more broadly, petroleum,” he writes. “Rail transit commonly runs on electricity; relatively little electricity is generated using oil. If all passengers in electric transit vehicles had to ride in cars, we’d use a lot more gasoline. No claim is made about energy use overall.”

Of course in a future where cars and trains might all run on electricity, that power is going to have to come from somewhere. Coal is predominantly used to generate electricity today, but renewable sources–wind, solar, hydro and nuclear–are increasingly viable.

NRDC: We already have energy efficient car technologies
The National Resource Defense Council, a 1.3 million member environmental group that focuses on legal approaches to green advocacy, takes the position that the most powerful and immediate solutions are in cars and electric power generation. But they don’t strictly promote a cultural shift to public transit. Rather, it’s about technologies. From their website:

“Here’s the good news: technologies exist today to make cars that run cleaner and burn less gas, modernize power plants and generate electricity from nonpolluting sources, and cut our electricity use through energy efficiency. The challenge is to be sure these solutions are put to use. Right away, we should put existing technologies for building cleaner cars and more modern electricity generators into widespread use.

“There is no reason to wait and hope that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will solve the problem in the future. Hybrid gas-electric engines can cut global warming pollution by one-third or more today; hybrid sedans, SUVs and trucks from several automakers are already on the market.”

But automakers should be doing a lot more: They’ve used a legal loophole to make SUVs far less fuel efficient than they could be; the popularity of these vehicles has generated a 20 percent increase in transportation-related carbon dioxide pollution since the early 1990s. Closing this loophole and requiring SUVs, minivans and pick-up trucks to be as efficient as cars would cut 120 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution a year. If automakers used the technology they have right now to raise fuel economy standards for new cars and light trucks to a combined 40 m.p.g., carbon dioxide pollution would eventually drop by more than 650 million tons per year as these vehicles replaced older models.

About the cost …
The excitement around building both rail lines was raised in January 2010 when the Obama Administration designated more than a billion dollars of federal money for the Florida High Speed Rail line. For Floridians, that’s a gift with a $3 billion price tag. And we all know how public works projects tend to balloon in cost once the first bulldozer scrapes the earth.

The overall $6 billion-plus would be for construction of both lines. Operational expenses are something else.

The only passenger rail system currently operating in Florida, along the congested West Palm Beach-Miami corridor, carries 4.3 million passengers per year paying $2 fares. Per trip, the system costs are about $100 per passenger, leaving 98 percent of costs to taxpayers (all told, it operates at a $40 million annual loss).

If this were an economic boom period, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. But America’s highways – where more than 90 percent of all people travel to work, school, for emergency services and to shop – are under accelerating deterioration conditions.

Deferred maintenance projects have led us to where repairs of roads and bridges would cost $64 billion per year (less than half of that typically is budgeted), according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). The incidence of potholes and other pavement decline is believed to cost individual motorists about $400 per year in repair bills.

Certainly, just about everyone wants faster, smoother and less congested travel. And the experience of riding an efficient train is something many travelers to Europe and Japan wish could exist in the U.S. But the locations for where that may succeed need to be considered relative to where people are will be interested in it.

Back to the city of Chicago, the 100-year-old Chicago Transit Authority system transports 75 percent of downtown workers to their jobs every day (overall 1.7 million rides per day on buses and trains). People who grew up in the city with middle-class incomes often don’t even have drivers licenses, they are so accustomed to the efficiency of public transportation. The same can be said about some Bostonians, New Yorkers, Philadelphians and residents of Washington, D.C. But Chicago’s annual $1.3 billion budget will likely hit a $300 million shortfall in 2010 due to costs associated with repairs to the aging system and lower passenger loads related to the unemployment rate.

Might those dollars for high-speed rail be instead diverted to road repair everywhere, and to prop up existing public transportation systems that people truly use? Is this the time to gamble that people will leave their cars and learn a whole new way of traveling?

Vroom vroom.