Polk’s High Speed Rail Stop Should Be USF Poly

My mind has been spinning the past 48 hours as I have tried to really settle my opinion of high speed rail in general and, more specifically, which location in Lakeland would be best for a potential stop on the proposed Tampa-Orlando line.

Friday’s Lakeland City Commission agenda meeting, which was marvelously tweeted by Lakeland Local and the City of Lakeland, resulted in a proposed resolution in which the city will stand behind a Clark Road rail stop where the west side of the Polk Parkway meets I-4. The rest of the county has come out in support of a stop where USF Poly will be built, on the east connection of the Polk Parkway and I-4.

While I still have some reservations about high speed rail in general, I’ll save that discussion for later. For now, here are my thoughts on where Polk County’s stop should be located.

First, the facts, or at least the projected facts.

Projected ridership is much higher at the Kathleen Road and Clark Road locations than it is at the USF Poly location. The Ledger has reported the projected ridership numbers as 1 million at Kathleen Road, then 942,500 at Clark Road and 837,000 at USF Poly in 2025.

That is for obvious reasons, as there is dense population near both Lakeland sites currently, as opposed to lots of open land where USF Poly eventually will be developed.

The cost estimates are also very telling: $29 million for Clark Road, $32.5 million for USF Poly, and $78.7 million for Kathleen Road. Apparently there would need to be some major infrastructure adjustments at Kathleen Road to get the site ready, hence the inflated cost.

In tight financial times like these, it makes no sense to spend more than twice as much at Kathleen Road as it would at Clark Road, especially considering Clark Road’s convenient access to the Parkway. So the discussion really comes down to Clark Road or USF Poly.

I loved Donovan Baltich’s take on Lakeland Local about this topic, which you can read here. He had some great insight into what matters with high speed rail from his experiences using the system in Europe, and he did a good job of bringing Plant City into the discussion. Plant City has been forgotten in this debate because it has become a Polk County centered discussion. But Plant City’s population is similar to Winter Haven’s, and its citizens would be significantly closer to the Clark Road stop than Winter Haven’s population would be to USF Poly.

The Legoland access debate is also moot, because both Clark Road and USF Poly are right on the Parkway and shuttle bus transportation would have to travel the Parkway for similar distances before exiting around Winter Lake Road. That is, unless there was substantial infrastructure additions near the USF Poly site that would enable Legoland tourists to have quicker access to the park from a station there.

Although USF Poly is certainly more centrally located in the county, I don’t see that as a legitimate argument. The best argument I can see for that station is that it will provide incredibly easy access to the USF Poly campus once it is built.

USF Polytechnic has the potential to take Polk County to another level by hopefully attracting new corporations and investment because of the specialized students that will graduate from there. If the campus eventually has enrollment of 15,000-20,000 or higher (it currently has about 5,000) a station there would make it easy for residents in Tampa or Orlando to take advantage of the university and contribute to the local economy.

But there are also significant environmental concerns/limitations in the area around USF Poly that should hinder other development there. I also don’t think development in that area should be determined by the existence of a high speed rail stop, but rather by responsible growth planning in general and also by the impact of the new USF Poly campus.

So development of the area around USF Poly is not a major concern of mine when it comes to a high speed rail stop. The best thing that area has going for it is the college campus itself.

Overall, I’m not convinced that Average Joe Citizen of Polk County is going to ride the train to Tampa or Orlando, especially since Tampa will only have a stop in downtown instead of at the airport. It’s likely to be faster and more cost effective to drive to both cities from here for quite a while, and without reliable public transit within Tampa and Orlando finding a ride from the station to your destination will be an issue, as well.

That being said, I think there will be significantly more people riding the train from here to Disney and Orlando than to Tampa. And if I can save on gas and parking at Disney by riding the train, that’s something to consider spending $30-$40 on for a day trip.

Clark Road will draw more riders willing to pay for a ride to Disney than USF Poly will. Again, there are more people near the Clark Road stop – so it will draw from a bigger base – and it is also 17.5 miles farther from Disney. If I have already driven to the USF Poly station, I have less incentive to stop and get on the train because I have already invested the time and gas to get that far, and there’s really only 45 minutes left to the Magic Kingdom.

East Polk residents in Haines City, Davenport, etc., are going to be closer to the Disney stop anyway, so they won’t have any incentive to use the USF Poly station. But if I’m in the densely populated parts of Lakeland, or in Plant City or even in Brandon, the Clark Road station could be a perfect launching point for a Disney trip or a night in downtown Orlando.

Clark Road was definitely the right spot for the Lakeland City Commission to endorse, because it would benefit Lakeland residents more than USF Poly. It would be more convenient and spur some more development in the area.

The problem with Clark Road, though, is I don’t see why people would view it as their destination, unless they live in Orlando and work in the Publix corporate offices or are in town for annual events such as the Strawberry Festival or Sun N Fun.

The USF Poly campus is a destination in itself, and there will be people riding the train to get to there. The Lake Myrtle Sports Complex, which includes the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, is also very close, and I really liked an idea mentioned by former County Commissioner Jean Reed on the Lakeland Local comment section: Eco-Tourism. Instead of blowing out development, why not take advantage of the protected environmental landmarks in the area and market it as a place for Tampa and Orlando residents to “escape.”

Finally, the Tampa-Orlando leg of high speed rail is by no means the end of the line. Eventually there will be high speed connections to Miami, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Washington, New York and all the way out to L.A. I just don’t see how the momentum for building high speed rail will be stopped cold.

So the Polk County station, wherever it is, will serve as a jumping off point for much longer trips than Tampa or Orlando, and in that case I won’t mind driving an extra 15 minutes to get to USF Poly instead of Clark Road. Because there is no way I’m driving all the way to Miami when I can take a train that will get me there hours earlier.

The USF Poly location has more potential and possibilities than Clark Road, and it provides an actual destination for riders. Local residents will still use it some to get to Disney and Orlando, too. It will certainly be a leap of faith if the state and the companies involved with the high speed rail project choose USF Poly, but really any location will be a leap of faith.

Heck, the whole high speed rail idea is a leap of faith. But if the project moves forward, and Polk County is awarded a stop, I say put it at USF Poly.

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2 Responses to Polk’s High Speed Rail Stop Should Be USF Poly

  1. James says:

    Thank you! I like what you’re doing so keep up the good work.

    I’m truly amazed at the stance the city has taken on this AND the rationale used to justify their decision on all fronts. For starters when did the Area of Critical State near the planned USF Poly site become such an important issue for the city to bring it up to discredit the Williams site? That area didn’t just earn the classification “Area of Critical State” so why bring it up? The area had the same distinction when it was acquired by the Williams Holding Acquisition Co., when the City of Lakeland decided to annex the property and when land was donated for USF Lakeland (now USF Polytechnic) so why stoop to such tactics to bolster another site? Another fact that people have overlooked is that Area of Critical State near USF Poly is the same exact area in which the track will be laid for High Speed Rail regardless of which site (if any) is chosen. Does this mean that HSR rail is in further jeopardy?

    One intangible that I would like to add that will factor in the potential ridership for each proposed location is how far in the “opposite” direction is a person willing to travel to reach their destination? We’ve been told that Plant City has a population that is comparable to that of Winter Haven AND it’s closer to the proposed Clark Rd site than Winter Haven is to the proposed USF Poly site. This may be true. However, when did the Lakeland/Winter Haven metro area become less important than Plant City in terms of potential riders? The city (of Lakeland) is saying that it’s willing to spite more than 300,000 residents in favor of an eastern Hillsborough County community that provides less than half that figure if you include areas west all the way to I-75.

    This is a Lakeland site and Lakeland needs to make this work and the city population can’t do it alone. I doubt that Lakeland residents (without Winter Haven or Plant City) will provide the 2500 riders per day to making Clark Rd a viable location? That’s laughable at best. Lakelanders (a larger percentage) are not going to travel west to Clark Rd only to travel east on the train so that automatically makes Clark Rd a Tampa destination site only for Lakelanders (for those that actually want to venture into downtown Tampa) and East Hillsborough County residents that plan to patronize Disney or Orlando Int’l Airport.

    Speaking of OIA, lets talk about Lakeland residents traveling to the Orlando area (Disney, OCCC or OIA). Like I said, Lakeland can’t make this work and the best solution for this is to Pick the USF Poly site. Everyone is talking central location this, population that but no one is looking at the bigger picture. For example, how big of a destination is Disney? Big enough for the train to have front-door service to their property. What about the Orange County Convention Center? Again, front-door service and the same goes for Orlando International Airport. This means that if you can get to the Poly station, you won’t have to worry about additional transportation once you reach your destination. The only way to tap into this is to locate the station within convenient distance to as many people as possible and only USF provides that. How many Lakelanders fly out of TIA because it’s a closer drive? I have and I used to live in East Lakeland. Now, if there’s a service (train) that will take me to the airport terminal in Orlando, thus eliminating the need to drive west through a newly reconstructed Malfunction Junction or worse, having to get off and take a surface street to the airport in Tampa, I’m all for it. So would the rest of Lakeland and Polk County.

    With that being said, I am and have always been for USF Poly as a stop even before additional studies were done. I hope the city gets this right…..

  2. James says:

    Well HSR in the State of Florida is officially dead, again!

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