Sunday, August 24, 2008

All Aboard

The Democratic National Convention has started. Barack Obama has selected Joe Biden as his running mate. The Republican National Convention follows next week. It would seem that these events would be sucking up all the oxygen available. They mostly are for us political junkies. But for the majority of Floridians, life goes on as usual.

Floridians are going about their daily business. They are engaged in their daily commutes and stuck in their normal traffic jams wishing somebody would do something to ease the traffic congestion. Or offer them a viable alternative to driving their cars. The mass transit situation in Florida is so bad that a commuter rail supporter recently included "all of Florida" among places that were "useless holes of car dependence".

Well, people all over Florida are trying to do something about it. In the Tampa Bay area, the newly created TBARTA is working on a regional transportation plan that has rail transit at its heart. TBARTA was created by the legislature in 2007, but it did not get any direct funding. Nevertheless, through funding provided for the Florida Department of Transportation, they have been engaging the community in their seven county region about the creation of a master transportation plan. With funding provided by the legislature this year, they are moving forward to hire an executive director to help them present their plan to the public early next year.

Even further along are the folks in the Orlando area. Four counties in central Florida have been working for years with the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal government to implement the Central Florida Commuter Rail project. This plan to advance
a commuter rail transit project to run along a 61-mile stretch of existing rail freight tracks
was in the news quite a bit earlier this year. The "61-mile stretch of existing rail freight tracks" are to be purchased by the state from CSX railroad. The legislature failed to approve the deal after a major misinformation campaign centered around liability sharing arrangements between the state and CSX. This was defeated even though the proposed liability plan is essentially the same one that is currently in effect for the one existing commuter rail system in Florida, the Tri Rail system in South Florida.

Despite failing to receive approval in the Florida legislature this year, the Central Florida Commuter Rail Project is far from dead. The agreement between the Florida Department of Transportation and CSX does not expire until after next year's legislative session. Congressman John Mica, the Minority Leader of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee recently announced the project has been approved by the Federal Transit Authority to enter the Final Design phase. Per Mica:
This announcement brings Central Florida within grasp of a cost-effective alternative to crippling gasoline costs and growing highway congestion along I-4. The Commuter Rail project now joins an elite group of only five other major New Starts transit projects in Final Design around the country... In addition, Final Design means that Commuter Rail will get its own dedicated funding request in the next president’s budget.
At about the same time, the related CSX intermodal logistics facility in Winter Haven received approval from the Central Florida Regional Planning Council of its Development of Regional Impact application.

The commuter rail projects in the Tampa Bay Area and Central Florida are moving forward. If we want to end the days when "all of Florida" is among places that were "useless holes of car dependence", it is time for us to get All Aboard.