When a place captures my fancy, I head for the travel guidebooks and survey the public transportation system.
If it’s good — an interconnected system of fast trains, subways, trams, buses and water taxies or ferries for scenic trips across a channel or lake — the destination becomes top draw.
Strictly as a travel destination, Florida would never make it to the top of my list.
But I’ve seldom been disappointed in France, Spain or Italy, where major cities are connected by a sophisticated rail system that also ferries residents and tourists to smaller, charming towns. And what can I say about the vast European network that seamlessly takes you from cities in one country to another — Barcelona to Paris, Vienna to Venice, Geneva to Lyon?
The naysayers and small thinkers will say, “You like it so much, move to Europe.” But why can’t we plan and encourage a better-connected Florida, easy on the residents as well as the tourists?
We might have taken a first step with All Aboard Florida.
No matter how skeptically we have come to view state affairs, the new plan to privately finance a new rail service between Miami and Orlando — with expansion plans to Tampa and Jacksonville, if successful — is good news.
The $1 billion project will launch hourly passenger train service between downtown Miami and Orlando International Airport by 2014. Trip time: three hours. Florida East Coast Industries will own and run the trains with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
Add to this winning ticket the hiring of a distinguished architectural firm to design a historic location in downtown Miami, the kind of grand train station expected of great cities, and there are enough signs to make this a game-changer for the better. Maybe Henry Flagler’s ghost will be with us as FECI builds the multi-use complex that will house the train station on a nine-acre site north of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse. That’s the site of Flagler’s original train station, the one that followed Julia Tuttle’s orange blossom into the history books.
It’s a no-brainer that the major hubs in the state should be rail-connected as they are in Europe and the Northeast. When car-dependency diminishes and public transportation thrives, cities grow up.
Connected cities mean more economic opportunities. People can live and work in different places, expand their choices and pursue options. Tourists can more easily move between the state’s attractions, major cities and landmarks without the hassles and cost of airports or the dreaded long-distance travel in crowded highways that come to a stand-still after deadly accidents.
Not that we don’t fall a little short with this plan.
High-speed rail, like France’s premier TGV trains, would have been preferable and probably more successful in the long run — and this project in no way makes it more palatable that Gov. Rick Scott rejected federal money for a high-speed train. But starting from nothing, this is quite a leap.
We’re a long ways from European efficiency, but All Aboard Florida might make us more-avid tourists in our own state.