The background

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has awarded $8.2 billion to construct 10 passenger rail projects across the country and more for corridor planning activities nationwide. This follows a $16.4 billion investment announced last month for 25 rail projects of national significance along America’s busiest rail corridor.

A map of the Federal Railroad Administration’s Investments to Enhance Intercity Passenger Rail. Courtesy: FRA

Among these was an award to the Florida Department of Transportation of a Corridor Identification & Development (or Corridor ID) grant to begin studying a passenger rail corridor between Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami.

According to the FRA, “The proposed corridor would connect Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami, FL. The corridor would provide new or enhanced service on one or more existing alignments. The corridor sponsor would enter Step 1 of the program to develop a scope, schedule, and cost estimate for preparing, completing, or documenting its service development plan.” Up to $500,000 will be allocated for this rail planning effort.

An additional $500,000 will be allocated to develop a scope, schedule, and cost estimate for preparing, completing, or documenting the service development plan for the corridor between the three cities. That corridor would provide new or enhanced service on one or more existing alignments, and potentially a new alignment between Orlando International Airport and Tampa.

The start of this process represents an opportunity for Jacksonville to take a leadership role in developing passenger rail for North Florida.

Corridor ID

The Corridor ID program is part of a national effort under the Biden-Harris administration to develop a pipeline of intercity passenger rail projects. That means turning mere ideas for rail services into real plans for how these services would be constructed and operated, ready to be built with future funding from the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail program, which has already funded high-speed rail projects like Brightline West and California High-Speed Rail.

An overview of the Corridor ID program. Courtesy: FRA

This grant marks the beginning of a process to envision what connecting Florida’s largest city to its neighbors will look like, and joining the Corridor ID pipeline moves Jacksonville up the line for making that a reality. There are already past studies that can be leaned on to support these efforts.

Although this is only the first of three steps in the Corridor ID process, this grant is important because it sets the tone for everything that comes after. As the initial scoping transitions into the creation of a Service Development Plan and then environmental review, FDOT and Jacksonville will have access to federal funds to support moving the corridor forward. Ultimately, once a plan is ready, this partnership will then need to seek up to 80% of the cost from the federal government.

The three steps of the Corridor ID program. Courtesy: FRA

Jacksonville’s rail history

Jacksonville is already host to a storied past for passenger rail. Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway historically operated rail service from Jacksonville to Miami (and at one point Key West) between the late 19th and mid-20th century.

The CSX A-Line, originally constructed in 1884 as the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railway, and later incorporated into Henry Plant’s Plant System, connected Jacksonville with Central Florida. Paralleling U.S. Highway 17, within the Jacksonville metropolitan area, the rail corridor runs through the Rail Yard District, North Riverside, Riverside, Murray Hill, Ortega, NAS Jacksonville, Orange Park, Fleming Island, Green Cove Springs and Palatka.

The FEC and CSX, along with several other railroads, converged in LaVilla, at the Jacksonville Terminal. Opened in 1897 and expanded in 1919, the Jacksonville Terminal was once the largest rail station south of Washington, D.C. At its height, 20,000 passengers a day boarded long distance trains here to other Florida cities, New York, Chicago and points west.

The 1960s would bring an end to that, as billions of government dollars poured into highway and airport construction. By the time Amtrak took over most passenger rail in 1971, the FEC had already ended its passenger services, and just three years later, the Terminal closed, with Amtrak relocating to a smaller facility on Clifford Lane.

In the 1990s, interest had arisen in reopening the train station, converted into the Prime Osborn Convention Center in 1986, to return Amtrak from outside downtown. But two decades later, these plans had remained by the wayside, the victim of a lack of urgency by city leaders and broader headwinds after the end of Florida High Speed Rail.

By 2012, All Aboard Florida, the predecessor to Brightline, had emerged. The first privately-owned rail company in the U.S. in decades, it proposed to reintroduce intercity passenger rail on the FEC Railway. Jacksonville was included on the map, a logical step considering that the city represents the north end of the FEC line.

However, Jacksonville’s leadership took few steps to attract future service, and as a result, Brightline prioritized a Tampa segment as their next step after Orlando, despite Jacksonville’s existing position and infrastructure being a much simpler prospect for passenger rail development.

Now, as progress is underway developing the corridor for service to Tampa, Jacksonville stands as a clear next step, and the city’s selection for Corridor ID represents the starting line for that development.