St. Augustine – Linking Florida’s East Coast cities by rail from Jacksonville to Key West was once the goal the city’s visionary, Henry Flagler. Now – just in time for America’s Oldest City’s 450th Birthday Celebration – St. Augustine has been chosen as one of eight East Coast cities to become a stop on a proposed passenger train route that would link Jacksonville with Miami by 2014.
City officials working with the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) to bring intercity passenger rail to the St. Augustine say a stop along the route is big news because of the lasting economic benefits it will mean for the area.
“It’s not just about the 450th, although this will certainly be the way to bring people into city for that,” said Commission Nancy Sikes-Kline, who represents the city on the North Florida TPO board. “This will give visitors an easy and economical way to travel from anywhere on the East Coast of Florida to our city. The long-range economic impact with a station near the downtown will tremendous.”
City Planning Director Mark Knight, who serves on the TPO Technical Committee, agrees. “This type of rail isn’t like a typical intercity line. This is planned to be tourist-oriented, with fewer stops, so it’s a way to bring people into the city, and it will help alleviate the parking and traffic issues we have for large events.”
Knight said the trains would make the St. Augustine stop approximately two to four times daily, and would have an added benefit for Jacksonville residents who like to come to St. Augustine a day of sight-seeing or a night out.
Daytona and Titusville are also proposed stops.
“They catch the train and avoid the stress of the highway traffic,” said Knight, who added, “Removing cars from the roads is always a good thing.”
The current top choice for a station for the city is a vacant building near the junction of San Marco Avenue and US-1 (see accompanying photo with artist mock-up of how the station would appear when in use). The building has pleasingly wooded grounds, and would also be cost-effective with its location near existing tracks, Sikes-Kline said.
While city planners would have preferred a site even closer to the downtown, for cost-considerations, Sikes-Kline said the US-1 location is still very acceptable and only a few minutes trolley-ride to the heart of the historic district. She said plans are currently to partner with downtown trolley companies for pick-up and drop-off at the location.
Other additional cost savings: it wouldn’t be necessary to move existing tracks will have to be done in some cities. Sikes-Kline said the tracks run close enough that a short walkway from the station building and possibly a covered platform could be built that would make the site passenger-ready.
“Even though its been years of planning and hard work, we’re really just getting the ball rolling on this, but every day, our wish for better infrastructure and transportation for our city becomes less a wish and more a reality. I have to be excited about that,” Sikes-Kline added.
The area from Jacksonville south to St. Augustine already gets an estimated 6 million visitors annually, but according to a recently released study by Amtrak, if implemented, the new passenger route could see approximately one hundred-thousand additional passengers to the Jacksonville area’s Silver Star line, due to ease of travel.
Amtrak estimates that reinstating the old Florida East Coast lines abandoned in 1968 will cost an estimated $268 million, which will be funded in part by state and federal money – including $118 million already set aside by FDOT for the project, which should see a federal matching grant as well. The city’s part in this would be around $1.5 million, which Sikes-Kline said could be potentially funded by seeking other transportation grant money.
Jacksonville officials estimate they will need around $40 million to upgrade track there.
The Amtrak study also indicates that operating a section of the Silver Star over the FEC line is projected to increase its revenues by $7.9 million annually, while adding up to 2,100 jobs during the construction period, with the possible addition of 6,300 jobs for the area by 2025.
The study shows that the proposed Florida East Coast Railway route is shorter and faster than the current AMTRAK route that winds through Orlando and Polk County on CSX. Knight pointed out that because it doesn’t have the frequent multi-city stops, the proposed passenger service will appeal to a significant intermediate travel market along Florida’s rapidly-growing northeast coast.
There would be a substantial savings to users as well. While no ticket cost estimate was available from Amtrak for Jacksonville-to-St. Augustine, an Amtrak official told a Brevard County audience that a ticket to Miami from Brevard could cost as little as $15.
“Because tourism is so important to our economy, St. Augustine really is perfect for a passenger train stop and station, and this could bring benefit everyone – from the businesses to the city’s infrastructure and environmental concerns,” Sikes-Kline said.
National Rail Operator’s Board Chairman Thomas Carper said the state will applyfor a second round of intercity rail grants later this year, with the east coast investments topping the state’s priorities.
He said with a newly received $1.25 million federal stimulus grant awarded to Florida, Illinois and California, officials have also not given up on High Speed Trail for the state, and that high-speed rail services could theoretically link Tampa-Orlando and the I-4 corridor with Miami by2018, and might extend north to Jacksonville by 2025.
While the proposed “bullet” trains can reach speeds of up to 90 mph, Amtrak passenger trains reach up to 60 miles mph, which would allow travel between the Jacksonville/St. Augustine area to Miami in as little as six hours. This is about an hour less than travel by car for the 350-mile trip, assuming there were no accident or construction delays, Amtrak has said.
Carper said the FDOT plan is that the East Coast passenger route would eventually link with the Disney area and Florida’s West Coast. There are also multiple visions and proposals for connecting with the proposed high speed rail that will run from Tampa to Orlando and Miami, with Jacksonville expected to be added by around 2020. Carper said all proposed high speed rail nationwide by 2030: http://www.ushsr.com/phasingplan.html
More links: http://www.sunshinestatenews.com/story/amtrak-ranks-florida-east-coast-line-most-promising-expansion
History of Flagler and East Coast Railway: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_East_Coast_Railway
Passenger Rail in Florida Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=106795702676987&fb_source=message