Out of Control Policy Blog

The Politics of High Speed Rail Policymaking....

Florida received $1.25 billion of the federal government's $8 billion allocation to high-speed rail projects. It would be hard to find a state rail plan that flies in the face of Obama's commitment to so-called evidence-based policymaking. The plan would linke Tampa and Orlando, two major cities just 84 miles a part whose downtowns are accessible within 90 minutes by automobile. Just about everyone agrees that high-speed rail "works" when cities are at least 200 miles apart because that's the distance necessary to make travel speeds competitive with the automobile.

From the New York Times (March 22, 2010):

The Florida train would indeed be high speed — as fast as 168 miles per hour. But because the trains would make five stops along the 84-mile route, the new service would shave only about half an hour off the trip.

Time-pressed passengers may also find themselves frustrated at the end of their trip. Neither city is known for great public transportation, so travelers may discover that they have taken a fast train to a slow bus.

Proponents of high-speed rail worry that the new line, which is scheduled to be up and running in 2015, might hurt rather than help their cause, if it comes to be seen as little more than an expensive way to whisk tourists from Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World, which is slated to get its own stop.

Of course, shaving the half hour of the trip is optimistic. It doesn't include the time needed to get to the train station, buy the ticket, board (or wait for) the train and disembark once you have arrived at the other end. Like most transit, the trip will probably take much longer than driving.

I actually feel some sympathy for the high-speed rail proponents on this one. Federal officials lobbyed the Florida legislature hard to pass legislation in the fall of 2009 that would qualify the state for the federal funds. Yet, the feds funded a high-speed rail link that has no meaningful utility other than getting a line up and running fast to score political points in a system that will have dubious benefits at best. This could well be a set back for high-speed rail in the U.S. since the other projects likely to get up and running are simply faster Amtrak trains.

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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