I Hear the Train a Comin!
By Eric Wright
There is only one name in Florida’s history that could stand by or even stand atop its first European discoverer, Juan Ponce de Leon, or the great Seminole Chief Osceola. It is Henry Flagler who, with his vision of an “American Riviera,” helped created the state we know today. An engineering triumph in itself, Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway was used to turn St. Augustine into a resort, where Flagler built hotels that are still in the National Register of Historic Places.
Flagler extended his railway south, connecting coastal communities that had been only accessible by water, and created Palm Beach as the winter destination of the Eastern seaboard’s rich and famous. He eventually took his rail line into Miami, where he invested heavily in the city’s development, and finally to Key West, which at the time was Florida’s most populous city. Soon, Florida’s east coast became a destination for people of every economic strata, both to live and to vacation.
Flagler made his fortune as one of the principal owners of Standard Oil along with John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews. According to contemporary journalist Edwin Lefevre, “When John D. Rockefeller was asked if Standard Oil was the result of his thinking, he answered, ‘No, sir. I wish I had the brains to think of it. It was Henry Flagler.’”
One hundred years later, the heirs of his company saw a trend that would have warmed the soul of Flagler himself. The first was a new urban migration, particularly by young people, back into city centers, where work, cultural and recreational amenities are coalesced. The second was the preference they have for transportation options other than the automobile. It was a planetary alignment that provided a unique opportunity. The company owned underutilized urban real estate holdings, one element of multimodal development through Flagler Development. For the first time in the country, a developer could provide a transportation system by repurposing existing assets of Florida East Coast Industries.
With this renewed vision, the legacy of Henry Flagler is once again moving beyond his name being connected to a college, a county, numerous statues and some of the most iconic architectural structures in the state. It’s a new spin on his audacious vision of building a transportation system that would bring economic development, which until recently, was largely forgotten.
Then came All Aboard Florida (AAF), a Flagler-esque plan for a high-speed passenger line between Miami, where many of Florida’s Central and South American visitors arrive, and Orlando, one of the most popular destinations in the world. In addition, they would provide development initiatives around the South Florida transportation hubs that would be created in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
Like Flagler’s earlier railroads, this one isn’t being funded by public/private initiatives like our highways, sports arenas and arts centers, but by Flagler’s company. The impact? Staggering.
Orlando is bracing for construction to begin on the new expansion of I-4, put at $2.1 billion, with subdued optimism that it will be a permanent cure to Orlando’s congestion woes, while All Aboard Florida’s rail line is estimated to take three million cars a year off Florida’s highways. The direct economic impact of AAF to the state over the next eight years is estimated to be $6 billion, with 10,000 new jobs being created through the construction and implementation phase, and 5,000 jobs estimated after construction is completed through 2021.
For areas like Brevard and Indian River counties, where the trains pass but don’t stop, there has been a steady rumbling of complaints. John Walsh, CEO of Port Canaveral, however, said, “We supported SunRail, because we understood that if commuter and passenger rail failed in Orlando, there was little hope we would ever see rail connections to the Port.” The consensus by all is that the same is true of All Aboard Florida. As passenger rail becomes an economically viable alternative to automobiles, the business model of expanding the network is inevitable.
Also, because of the size and speed of the trains, the delays will be more like a typical red light, with the time from crossing gates down to crossing gates up being around 40 seconds. It’s not the type of interruptions caused by the endless boxcars of lumbering freight trains to which most residents are accustomed.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs sees the project as an “investment in infrastructure and promoting environmentally-friendly initiatives that enhance our quality of life. All Aboard Florida will be a truly transformative project, bringing thousands of jobs to our region and redefining travel between Central and South Florida.”
Take the Last Train to…MCO
Soon, the transit system will be making some 12 to 16 trips a day between Orlando International Airport and Miami in each direction, in just under three hours with stops in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
Its trains will run on 195 miles of track the parent company owns, while adding 40 new miles inland to Orlando. The east-west line will run along the right-of-way of the Beachline Expressway to the Orlando International Airport’s new $215 million train-and-bus terminal. The Orlando Expressway Authority, along with AAF, reached a purchase agreement with Deseret Ranches for an extra 200 feet of easement along the 22-mile Beachline to make the link possible.
The logic for AAF is simple: “For trips less than three hours, people will usually drive,” explained AAF’s chief operating officer, Don Robinson. “For trips of four or five hours, people will fly. Three hours is optimal for rail, putting All Aboard Florida’s principle market in Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.”
AAF’s Trains are planned to run at 79 miles per hour (127 km/h) from Miami to West Palm Beach, then accelerating to 110 miles per hour (177 km/h) from West Palm Beach to Cocoa. The turn west to MCO will bring speeds of up to 125 miles per hour (201 km/h), which causes this segment to almost meet the code definition of high-speed rail.
Buddy Dyer, Mayor of Orlando commented, “We have spent the past decade focused on enhancing our transportation network. The addition of All Aboard Florida is perfect timing as SunRail becomes operational. We are ensuring our region’s competitive advantage by developing a complete transportation solution that will grow our economy and make us an even more attractive destination for tourists.”
A Unique Experiment
All Aboard Florida is one of the most unique transportation visions in the country and one that could serve as a pattern for other regions to follow. P. Michael Reininger, prior to becoming AAF’s president and chief development officer, was involved in a transformative multimodal project focused on Denver’s Union Station. That development’s success became a precursor for what AAF could bring to Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, much like Orlando’s proposed multimodal Creative Village and Health Village projects.
As Reininger explained, “There is a symbiotic relationship between these two divisions: the land development and the transportation, which is pretty powerful and enables us to move in concert with one another to achieve some pretty remarkable outcomes. The more densely concentrated the urban development you have around a station, the more customers that transportation system has who are predisposed to use it. In addition, the more diverse a transportation system you have through a development, the more you enhance that real estate’s value, whether it is residential, commercial or hospitality.
“Almost never do you have one entity that is in control to make the most of the decisions regarding this type of development,” he continued. “Usually the transportation is the preview of the public sector and the development of the private, which is how it worked in Denver. When one entity is on both sides of the equation, the simplest elements of design aesthetics and efficiency are made to the advantage of both parties, bringing benefit to the consumer and streamlining the process. If you are only looking at one side, you will make transportation decisions that are suboptimal for development and vice versa.
“When you have a project that is spread out on 235 miles of Florida land, there is nothing simple or purely linear about solutions,” Reininger added. “The challenge is the novelty of what we are doing, since there aren’t other examples in the U.S. to cite, because it is a private sector transportation system. The advantage is that the private sector is driven to be efficient in time and cost; we are able to move in terms of months or years, versus years and decades. Because people understand the value of innovative infrastructure solutions, without impact on tax structures, All Aboard Florida has been met with wonder and receptivity across the board.”