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Imagine a world where you could take the kids from Jacksonville to Orlando for a weekend at Walt Disney World without sitting in Interstate 4 traffic for hours and maybe even get some work done during the trip.
While it has not received much attention in Northeast Florida, there is reason to believe (or at least hope) that Jacksonville will be tied into Florida’s developing high-speed rail system. When that time comes, the hope should be that our local leadership gets behind the project.
Earlier this month, the country’s first privately funded high-speed rail system began service in South Florida, from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale. The “Brightline” train system, funded by All Aboard Florida, is expected to expand into downtown Miami later this year, and likely into Orlando in the near future.
The trip from Miami to West Palm Beach is estimated to take just 60 minutes (rather than up to five hours in heavy traffic), with the trip from Miami to Orlando slated to be three hours (versus about 3.5 hours in normal traffic).
In addition to cutting travel times, a significant economic impact is likely to be felt at each high speed rail station by private mixed-use real estate developments, which are estimated to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue.
Despite the reduction in travel time and other environmental and practical benefits associated with removing potentially millions of vehicles from our roads, local governments along the Treasure Coast (St. Lucie, Martin and Indian River counties) have demonstrated strong opposition to the high-speed rail project, specifically over concerns regarding safety and potential delays for local traffic.
In addition to opposition from local governments, the state’s multibillion dollar boating industry has also expressed concern because of the system of drawbridges that allow fishing boats to pass through South Florida’s heavily traversed waterways. The problem is that the bridges must stay down when trains pass through them, and the worry is that train traffic will cause congestion in the waterways which could lead to significant delays in commerce.
So far, those counties’ and other efforts to block the project have been largely unsuccessful. While the state Legislature has taken steps toward imposing safety-oriented regulations on Brightline (see Indian River Sen. Debbie Mayfield’s “High Speed Rail Safety Act”), the project looks likely to move forward with its planned expansion into Orlando.
While no detailed plans connecting the Brightline project to Jacksonville appear to have been made public at this point, in May 2014, “AAF Jacksonville Segment LLC” was created, all but confirming All Aboard Florida’s eventual goal of expanding the high speed rail corridor to Northeast Florida.
Once that happens, it likely will mean additional transit at the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center that broke ground late last year.
Assuming the Brightline project is otherwise successful in terms of the operation of its initial route from Miami to Orlando, whenever the time comes for expansion into Jacksonville, rather than block the project, our local government should do all it can to help make sure that expansion can happen as quickly and efficiently as possible.
More than likely, as has been the case so far in South Florida, All Aboard Florida would be able to expand the rail corridor into Jacksonville utilizing existing railroad rights of way.
Of course, as is the case with any project of this magnitude, our leaders should study the economic impact in much more detail than I have here; but, from a long-term perspective as Florida continues to grow, for Jacksonville to reach its full potential we need to stay ahead of the curve in the world of transportation.
Whether we see it in practice on a large scale at this point or not, high-speed rail is gaining traction across the country as a critical and popular mode of transportation, similar to what is common in Europe. A project like this may be knocking on our door some day and Jacksonville needs to welcome it with open arms.