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Nancy Smith

High-Speed Rail Little Engine That Could Chug Florida Straight Over the Cliff

December 12, 2010 - 6:00pm

If-you-build-it-they-will-come worked for Kevin Costner in Iowa, but will it work for the growing gaggle of cheerleaders so intent on high-speed rail in Florida?

The romance in their soul may say yes; the math in their head should say no.

Notice, I said should.

Whatever happened to the stimulus-money-is-poison premise? Disappeared the day after the election, apparently. Some of the same puffy Florida politicians who spent the runup to the midterm elections decrying federal stimulus money because it's running up the deficit ... look at them now. They're gimme-guys drooling over the extra $342 million headed to Florida for high-speed rail.

Sadly, Sen. George LeMieux is one of them.

In March, LeMieux was running around the state making doomsday speeches about our $12 trillion national debt. He had a not-half-bad, freeze-the-budget plan to put the economy right.

But then along came two new Republican governors, John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Kasich and Walker each told the feds, no thanks, I don't know where we're going to get the riders.

These smart new boys, John Kasich and Scott Walker, are my heroes.

LeMieux was ecstatic when he found out Ohio and Wisconsin's loss would be Florida and 13 other states' gain. Here's what he had to say last week about the extra $342 million for Florida rail projects: "This additional funding underscores not only the national support, but also Florida's commitment to bring better transporation solutions to the state. I look forward to the day when people can travel to and from the major city and university centers in Florida, creating a megaregion."

Looks like LeMieux wants to head that whistle-blowing silver bullet into the station first ... and save the country from financial disaster later.

Why?

The dramatic bullet-training of America, something the Obama administration seems intent on, offers short-term job gain. But long-term, it will speed this country toward insolvency. Florida shouldn't buy into it.

Americans aren't in love with trains, they're in love with the idea of trains. Look at us. We don't have the lifestyle or the culture or the geography to sustain trains, I don't care how fast they go.

America isn't Europe. It isn't a land of compact cities with zero-lot-lines, walking weather and public transportation that links to other public transportation. We're an independent lot. We like our open spaces, we like to live out and work in, we like to drive big, comfortable vehicles that can ease us from one metro area to another while we listen to satellite radio and conduct business via the Bluetooth. When we do go to a station -- any station -- we get in the car and drive there. At the other end, we rent a car or get somebody to pick us up.

We wish we had a more active environmental conscience, we talk a good game, but we are what we are.

Train services only seem to work in this country as economic engines that serve the big-city dynamic, when they can link commuters to their jobs.

Mind you, Americans love to visit trains. They go to Europe and ride the Eurostar or the Flying Scotsman or the Trans-Siberian Express and have a wonderful time. What they don't do is come home and ride Amtrak.

Next year Amtrak, America's passenger train service, celebrates its 40th birthday. I want to send up the fireworks, honestly I do, except for one tiny hiccup. Not a single one of the 39 years so far has been profitable for Amtrak.

In 1971, its first year, Amtrak earned $163 million, with expenses of $310 million. Don't worry, the rail service's proponents said, America is changing, people will ride. But by 1980 things were no better, with $454 million in revenue and $1.08 billion in expenses.

Drey Peterson, a lobbyist for a variety of transporation providers, told Sunshine State News that Amtrak serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states. He said all but three of its 44 routes lost money last year.

"You know," he said, "it isn't going to matter if Florida turns all its rail building and operation over to a private concern. The system will still be in the red and its officials will be standing before Congress, cap in hand, asking for a subsidy to keep going."

He predicted, "Congress won't say no, because they're subsidizing all kinds of transportation industries as it is, and if they did say no, Florida has a high-speed rail system stopped cold and deteriorating on the edge of the graveyard. And politically, watch heads roll and listen to the cries of 'boondoggle!' then."

Peterson defended Amtrak, saying it's probably the best bang Florida is going to get for its buck. "These high-speed rail networks are pretty much always over budget and end up getting a lot of their operating money from the feds. The rest of the world's passenger trains, except in Japan and maybe France, are running in the red.

"The reason we're getting so much foreign interest in building and running a fast-train system in Florida is the foreigners know they can go to Congress every year for a subsidy and get it."

Depressing, but a compelling observation.

All of this federal money -- if Florida is OK with slicing off a fat piece of the pork for itself -- means the $2.7 billion project is 90 percent paid for. That's the temptation. But 10 percent of $2.7 billion isn't chicken feed, even if it is on the installment plan.

The train would link Orlando International Airport with downtown Orlando and Tampa -- and maybe even the Orange County Convention Center, Walt Disney World and Lakeland. That's a lot of stops in an 84-mile path for a high-speed train to stay speedy. Nevertheless, the good news is, trains could be rolling by 2015. The bad news is, that's all the high-speed rail that $2.7 billion buys.

What about the 230-mile Miami-to-Orlando route? Then, what about Orlando to Jacksonville or Tallahassee?

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Sunshine State News Friday, "If Florida can find the money, all things are possible. By 2020, there's no telling how many routes you could have up and running."

If Florida can find the money, the man says.

Florida wants billions for Everglades restoration, now billions for a high-speed rail network, maybe billions more for Medicaid. And, think of it, we're just one state out of 50, each with a separate wish list and no money.

Here are other high-speed rail problems to consider:

  • The new system may need to use existing track on the inner city ends, track which is private and dedicated to moving freight. With the opening of the Panama Canal in 2014, the nation's freight railroads will be busier than ever. In fact, back in July, a story in the Economist said the capacity of freight riding the rails had to be increased by 90 percent in order to cope with the larger containers and more frequent shipments. So, to say the freight folks aren't high-speed rail-friendly at the moment is the understatement of the year.
  • Railroad rights of way require a significant amount of land. Try to imagine. What you can't have in building a road for a fast train are a lot of bends. You have to build in a straight line. This is a process that involves mind-boggling planning -- not to mention funding -- and most abhorrent, the confiscation of property (eminent domain) to make sure track avoids said bends.

And I once laughed at the absurdity of Alaska's "bridge to nowhere."

A professor at the Cato Institute once told me that the demand for high-speed rail is what happens when liberalism gets ahead of itself, "and when the temptations of idealism squeeze out considerations of practicality." I wasn't in the mood then. The times weren't right for me to think about it. They most certainly are right now.

Gov.-elect Rick Scott has expressed his doubts over high-speed rail, too. As I understand it, he and his team are measuring the layers of cost to Florida against the benefits that high-speed rail presents. I look forward to hearing their analysis.

Contact Nancy Smith at nancybutlersmith@yahoo.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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