Feb 24, 2011

The Future of Rail in Florida

As follow up to our blog the other day on the Future of Rail in America, here's a good column from Orlando Sentinel curmudgeon Mike Thomas on why have Fast Rail at all:

There is much confusion over Rick Scott's decision to derail high-speed rail. I will now clear up the confusion by compiling questions and comments guaranteed to anger both sides.
Q. Why build it?
A. It would go really fast and be really cool. The feds are paying for 90 percent of it. Private contractors might pay the rest. The Middle East tyrants we set up to protect our oil are getting bounced. Interstate 4 is congested. One day the train could run to Miami, giving Florida a leg up in 21st-century economy and providing a quick ride to South Beach.
Q. Why not build it?
A. History teaches us that all trains not going to New York are budget-busting dogs. I could drive to Tampa faster and five times cheaper. The savings quadruple if I bring my wife and kids. I would have to buy four tickets to bring them on the train, whereas they ride free in the car. Taking the Prius, we bring a carafe of Starbucks, listen to NPR, let the kids fight over the iPad, drive right to our destination and get there on a gallon and a half of gas.

Q. How many people would ride the train?
A. The latest estimate is about 3 million people a year. Whoever conjured that number up smoked a big fat doobie first.
Q. So, death to the train!
A. Maybe. Do the past and present dictate the future? We love our cars now. But oil prices are only going up long-term, with critical shortages a real possibility in the future. Maybe electric and hydrogen cars will keep us on the road. But even then, you can only widen the roads so much. So what we have is a gamble on what the future will bring. Given that the money is on the table now, do we therefore grab it?
Q. What is our financial risk?
A. The train is estimated at $2.7 billion, with the feds kicking in $2.4 billion. That leaves us with $300 million. But there are big international consortia lined up to build and operate the train. They might agree to cover our cost and cover all overruns for the next 20 or 30 years.
Q. Why would they do that?
A. This would get their foot in the door on high-speed rail, setting them up for much more lucrative routes in the future if this technology takes off. Taking a loss on Orlando might be an acceptable risk given potential profits down the road. Also, the biggest cost of running a train is making the mortgage payment. This one would be paid for.
Q. So what are they offering?
A. Scott pulled the plug before the bidding began. This puzzled even former Gov. Jeb Bush. Even if you are skeptical about a deal, you still want all information and options on the table before making a decision.
Q. But Scott said Florida was at risk for billions, didn't he?
A. He apparently did not believe that the state could be protected from cost overruns. That's certainly true in dealing with private companies, which always can find a way to bail on contracts. But the feds have hinted they would cover our losses. It could be Scott killed the train now before he was hit with a deal too good to turn down.
Q. Why do that?
A. I'm guessing he thought the project was a dog all along. And dressing it up with studies, contracts, guarantees and sweeteners wasn't going to change that. This also plays well with Scott's tea-party supporters and gains him national attention.
Q. But we can't afford to build trains when we are $14 trillion in debt!!!
A. Hard to argue with that one. The problem is that, though this is an ideological victory, is it not a practical one. The feds will simply give the money to California and New York to build their trains. So the $2.4 billion still will be added to the debt whether we get the train or not. Do we blow off that kind of money simply on principle, even if it's a noble one?
Q. Is the train dead?
Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon both backed the train in 2009 but now support Scott. They're flopping like mullet in the bottom of the boat. Haridopolos is running for the U.S. Senate and doesn't want to look soft on spending. I assume Cannon is circling the wagons around SunRail. So the state is done with trains.
Q. Is it Rep. John Mica to the rescue?
Mica wants to dump Tampa and run trains from the Orlando International Airport to the Orange County Convention Center and Disney. So our cutting-edge transportation system of tomorrow becomes a tourism shuttle. And Disney already has one, its Magical Express bus. Unless Mickey gives that up, and it has shown no inclination to do that, the train to Disney might have no more riders than a train to Tampa.
mthomas@tribune.com or 407-420-5525

Conservastore believes in light rail and Sunrail but is still unsure about Fast Rail in Florida

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