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.