Hotline #795 -- January 25, 2013

The Michigan Department of Transportation announced January 22 that Amtrak carried almost 800,000 passengers in the state in 2012, setting a new ridership record, and resulting in a record $27.8 million in revenue.

Amtrak runs three Michiganroutes: the thrice-daily Wolverine Service (Pontiac/Detroit-Chicago), daily Blue Water (Port Huron-East Lansing-Chicago), and daily Pere Marquette (Grand Rapids-Chicago).

Officials cited a number of factors to explain the booming ridership: capital improvements that have shortened travel times and increased reliability, increased public awareness of the convenience and availability of trains, and expanded capacity for peak holiday travel periods.

In a statement, MDOT provided data that puts the success in concrete terms:

There were 792,769 riders overall, with 495,277 traveling the Wolverine, 187,991 passengers on the Blue Water, and 109,501 passengers on the Pere Marquette. This compares to 780,655 total riders in 2011. The Wolverine service had an especially strong finish to the year, posting large ridership gains over the last four months compared to 2011: up 19.7 percent in September, up 9.5 percent in October, up 8.6 percent in November, up 6 percent in December.

Revenue from the three routes also jumped to a best-ever high of $27.8 million in 2012, with Wolverine revenue at $18.4 million, Blue Water at $6.1 million, and Pere Marquette at $3.3 million.

 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced this week that he'll be staying on as head of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The news is surely a positive sign for passenger rail: LaHood has been a vocal supporter of trains, and a strong friend of NARP.

 

Governor Jerry Brown of California recommitted his administration to the statewide high-speed rail project in a State of the State delivered yesterday.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) made headlines last week with the announcement of a partnership with Amtrak to purchase the next generation of high-speed train equipment.  And in yesterday’s address, Governor Brown sought to maintain momentum by identifying near-term steps the state is taking to bring the 220 mphLos Angeles toSan Francisco train to reality:

Today,California’s highways are asked to accommodate more vehicle traffic than any other state in the nation. Most were constructed before we knew about climate change and the lethal effects of dirty air. We now expect more.

Last year, you authorized another big project: High Speed Rail. Yes, it is bold but so is everything else aboutCalifornia.

Electrified trains are part of the future.Chinaalready has 5000 miles of high speed rail and intends to double that.Spainhas 1600 miles and is building more. More than a dozen other countries have their own successful high speed rail systems. EvenMoroccois building one.

The first phase will get us fromMaderatoBakersfield. Then we will take it through theTehachapi Mountainsto Palmdale, constructing 30 miles of tunnels and bridges. The first rail line through those mountains was built in 1874 and its top speed over the crest is still 24 miles an hour. Then we will build another 33 miles of tunnels and bridges before we get the train to its destination at Union Station in the heart ofLos Angeles.

It has taken great perseverance to get us this far. I signed the original high speed rail Authority in 1982—over 30 years ago. In 2013, we will finally break ground and start construction.

The project is moving ever closer to breaking ground, with CAHSRA awarding a contract to the Wong/Harris consortium to oversee construction of the initial stretch of track inFresno andMadera counties.  The consortium is a partnership between PGH Wong Engineering, a San Francisco-based engineering and consulting firm, and Harris & Associates, a consulting and management firm fromConcord.

"These companies have extensive experience in transit and rail programs inCaliforniaand around the country," said Jeffrey Morales, CAHSRA’s CEO. "They will ensure that the design-builder adheres to the conditions of the contract. They will be reviewing the work and reporting back to us."

Wong/Harris will eventually oversee the construction of the Initial Operating Segment, a contract estimated to be worth around $2 billion.  So far, CAHSRA has received bids from California Backbone Builders (Ferrovial Agroman and Acciona), California High-Speed Rail Partners (Fluor Corp., Skanska, and PCL Constructors), California High-Speed Ventures (Kiewit Corp., Granite Construction, and Comsa EMTE), Dragados/Samsung/Pulice (Dragados SA, Samsung C&T America, and Pulice Construction Inc.), and Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons (Tutor Perini Corp., Zachry Construction Corp., and Parsons Corp.).

 

A legal technicality could allow the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to block construction of the Orlando to Miami passenger train service being developed privately by All Aboard Florida.

All Aboard Florida has already secured track access between Miami and Cocoa through an arrangement with sister company Florida East Coast Railway, a freight company that owns a rail corridor between Miami and Jacksonville.  But All Aboard Florida must lay new track when it heads inland toOrlandoaroundCocoa, and they had been counting on utilizing government-owned property south of the BeachLine Expressway to build the right of way.

However, the Orlando Sentinel revealed that a decades old provision could be used to stop the train dead in its tracks:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave the land to the expressway authority in 1965 with the condition that it be used for a "limited access toll road." Nothing was said about a train or other possible development.

The church, which has plans for a mixed-used development on 19,000 acres close to the airport and theMedicalCitycomplex, could use 48-year-old agreement to press for access to the train or to the BeachLine.

The Church hasn’t explicitly committed to allowing the rail corridor to go ahead, while striking a generally positive note about the project.

"We are supportive of efforts to bring rail to Central Florida as part of regional transportation opportunities and are willing to work with all parties involved,” wrote Erik Jacobsen, a manager at Deseret Ranch Holdings, a company owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that controls 300,000 acres in Orange, Brevard and Osceola counties.

Florida East Coast officials are taking the threat seriously, however.

"We're still analyzing it,” said Executive Vice President Husein Cumber of Florida East Coast Industries, the corporation that owns All Aboard Florida. “I don't have an answer to it."

All Aboard Florida had previously stated that it would begin construction this year.  While tunneling or elevating tracks to ease demands on the BeachLine Expressway are feasible from an engineering perspective, they would drastically raise the cost of construction, eroding the economic feasibility of the project for Florida East Coast Industries.


Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has put forth a proposal for a quarter-cent sales tax for the Twin Cities metropolitan area, with the proceeds dedicated to the upgrade and expansion of the transit network that serves St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The message was delivered January 18 by Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh in her State of the Region speech.

“Transit holds the key to a successful and prosperous region,” said Haigh. “Our vision is to work together to continue to build a 21st century regional transit system with expanding regional services that connect people to and from work, school and home, and to work together to strategically support economic development along transitways that will produce robust local economies and grow jobs.”

By moving to a metro sales tax dedicated to transit, Governor Dayton argues that more predictability would be introduced into the funding of public transportation, which currently relies on federal grants, state general fund expenditures, and bonds.  The Metropolitan Council Chair did not specify how much money would be raised by the proposal.

Governor Dayton also revealed his near-term intentions concerning development of the Minnesota’s passenger rail network in a speech before the Minnesota Newspaper Association yesterday.  The Governor identified a few passenger rail proposals he felt were “good ideas,”—singling out the proposed Northern Lights Express that would connect the Twin Cities to Duluth, and a line between the Twin Cities and Rochester—but said he could not commit state funds to the projects, and didn’t see much hope of federal rail grants moving forward in the current political environment.

 

The Regional Transportation District of Denver (RTD) held a ceremony Thursday to celebrate the completion of the light-rail West Rail Line, the first significant expansion ofDenver’s light-rail network in a decade and the first component of the RTD’s FasTracks program to expand and improve rail transit in the centralColorado region.

The ceremony was held to light the Sixth Avenue Bridge, which West Line trains will use when they begin revenue operation on April 26.