Politics

Amtrak Ranks Florida East Coast Line 'Most Promising' For Expansion

By: Kenric Ward | Posted: October 12, 2011 3:55 AM
Amtrak Train

Amtrak train at the Tampa Union Station | Credit: Andy Callahan - Flickr

Long-discussed plans for returning passenger rail service to Florida's East Coast got new life from an Amtrak report that ranks the dormant West Palm Beach-Jacksonville segment as "the most promising initiative for expansion."

Passenger service on the 350-mile coastal stretch was abandoned in 1968. Amtrak trains currently run between Miami and West Palm Beach, then connect with Jacksonville via an inland route through Orlando.

Florida East Coast Railway and local communities have been investigating a return to passenger service for several years, and this week's Amtrak report was hailed as a significant step.

“This is great news and reinforces what we know about the project. Passenger service on the FEC corridor will create economic development opportunities from Jacksonville to Miami -- boosting tourism, helping the cruise ship industry, and directly benefiting key destinations like Daytona’s International Speedway," said Doug Smith, a Martin County commissioner.

"It will also help the work force to migrate along the coast, helping regional businesses expand and become more successful," Smith said.

But there's still a long way to go before the concept can become reality.

Amtrak's preliminary analyses suggest splitting the current Silver Star line at Jacksonville and operating a separate section of the train to Miami via the FEC to supplement the Silver Star's current Jacksonville-Orlando/Tampa-Miami service.

Operating a section of the Silver Star over the FEC tracks is projected to attract more than 100,000 new riders and increase revenues by $7.9 million annually.

"Since projected revenues would slightly exceed the anticipated additional operating costs, the route's financial performance would improve as well," the Amtrak report stated.

But running a section of the Silver Star over the FEC tracks is not included in the plan "because it cannot be implemented at this time," the report added.

The study cautioned that "significant capital funding would be required for rail infrastructure upgrades on the FEC route, including additional equipment,
mobilization costs, and other necessary investments."

"In addition, Florida DOT, which owns the rail line between West Palm Beach and Miami, over which additional service routed via FEC would operate, is prohibited by Florida law from entering into the liability apportionment arrangements that Amtrak has with nearly all of its host railroads.

"Initiation of additional Amtrak service over FDOT-owned lines would subject Amtrak to additional unacceptable liability exposure," the study concluded.

The state's current capital budget includes funding for investments to restore passenger rail service on the FEC route. The state has also committed to working with Amtrak to secure enactment of an amendment to Florida law that would allow FDOT to enter into a liability apportionment agreement with Amtrak.

FEC spokesman Husein Cumber said the railway company "looks forward to discussing the analysis with Amtrak, FDOT and the local communities, and identifying key next steps to move the project forward."

"We recognize the desire of residents to have passenger rail service on the FEC," Cumber said.

Two years ago, a consortium of eight East Coast cities sought a $268 million federal grant to resurrect the line built by turn-of-the-century industrialist Henry Flagler.

Under the initial plan, the federal funds (on an 80-20 match with the state) would have purchased new Amtrak equipment after $40 million was spent to link the TriRail and Amtrak routes in West Palm Beach and upgrade the Miami connection center.

The city of Jacksonville says it also needs $40 million to upgrade FEC tracks there.

Though funding is evermore problematic in Tallahassee and Washington, coastal communities continue to view Amtrak service as a powerful economic-development engine for the short- and long-term.

"It  will implement redevelopment plans, promote 'stay-cations,' increase local spending and provide immediate construction jobs," said Kathy Meehan, vice mayor of Melbourne and a member of Melbourne Main Street.

"We need this economic development investment now, and Amtrak’s announcement gives us a chance to move forward immediately.”

Nancy Sikes-Kline, a St. Augustine city commissioner, recalled that Flagler brought the first train into that historic city in the late 1800s.

"We’re more than ready for it to return," she said. "We have more than 6 million annual visitors and as we near our 450th anniversary celebration, we expect that number to grow substantially."

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.


Comments (9)

kelly
2:02PM MAY 16TH 2013
i hate this
Robert Lloyd
8:56AM OCT 13TH 2011
Wouldn't it be cheaper to just buy every welfare recipient their own Cadillac?
Willie Green
9:52AM OCT 13TH 2011
No, Bob. Cadillacs guzzle way too much gas.
Passenger rail is far more efficient and will help reduce our dependence on imported Oil.
BinhT
4:54PM OCT 12TH 2011
This is one of a handful of routes that could actually return a small profit for Amtrak. Perhaps this explains why Herzog and Veolia are trying to get in on the action.
Linda Robinson
4:49PM OCT 12TH 2011
This is wonderful!! So thrilled to see the possible expansion!!!
RepublicanConscience
8:21AM OCT 12TH 2011
Amtrak is subsidized by the Federal Government which is our tax dollars. If Amtrak could run at a profit and expand with its own profits, I say let them go. But it is a failed business and just another scam for taxes to pay-off unions. When will the public learn that Rail Roads are like the horse an buggy, except the Rail Road get tax dollars to keep the failed operations going. Perhaps we should have bailed out Bata format, 8-tracks, VCRs, too.
BinhT
5:00PM OCT 12TH 2011
By your own logic, all highways and cars are massive "failed operations" and scams since they cost $Billions$ of dollars to operate and maintain.
As inefficient as Amtrak is, it still manages to cover a higher percentage of its costs (nearly 70%) compared to roads (barely covers 50%).
Still, there are a few routes that actually turn a small profit for Amtrak. This appears to be another. There is a bill in Congerss to open this up to competition and at least two other operators are lobbying for it.
public employee
11:35PM OCT 12TH 2011
Very true. Also Amtrak covers a greater portion of its costs than any other public railroad in the world.

Some may argue that Amtrak deserves the tiny portion of the federal pie since they transport only a tiny percent of the travelling public. However, I believe that if a greater portion of federal funding were diverted to rail (from roadways/air/waterways, etc.), ridership would proportionally increase as well, justifiying the investment. Also, a little more/better advertising/marketing would surely help.
Willie Green
8:18AM OCT 12TH 2011
It is Florida's misfortune to have an anti-passenger rail, GOP obstructionist governor.

We can expect him to march lockstep with the national agenda as dictated by the Oil, Airline, Highway and Freight Railroad Lobbies.

It may be more productive to allocate limited passenger rail resources to those states that better understand that regional passenger rail infrastructure is vital to remaining economically competitive in the 21st Century Global Economy.

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