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LaHood Gives Florida Gov. Scott Yet Another Week to Take Rail Money

Robert Poole
February 28, 2011, 9:09am

When it comes to spending your tax dollars on trains in Florida, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood doesn’t want to take no for an answer.

Last Friday, Secretary LaHood announced he's giving Florida Gov. Rick Scott yet another week to accept $2.4 billion in federal funding for the Orlando-to-Tampa high-speed rail line. Yes, that is the same $2.4 billion that Scott already turned down twice. The Miami Herald reports:

The saga began more than a week ago when Scott said he was rejecting $2.4 billion the federal government was providing for the 84-mile line connecting Orlando and Tampa.

Last Sunday he opened the door a crack, or so it seemed, by saying he’d look at an alternative proposal to take it out of state hands. On Thursday, a day before a federal deadline to come up with a deal, Scott rejected the plan, which called for the cities of Orlando, Tampa, Lakeland and Miami to form a coalition to put the project out to bid.

Then came Friday’s shocker. At 2 p.m., U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued a statement saying he had given Florida one more week to work out the deal.

“This morning I met with Governor Rick Scott to discuss the high speed rail project that will create jobs and economic development for the entire state of Florida,” LaHood said. “He asked me for additional information about the state’s role in this project, the responsibilities of the Florida Department of Transportation, as well as how the state would be protected from liability....“He has committed to making a final decision by the end of next week. I feel we owe it to the people of Florida, who have been working to bring high speed rail to their state for the last 20 years, to go the extra mile.”

Scott said he did not ask for additional time.

Still, in an interview with the Herald/Times, he said he would meet with local leaders to hear their plan. He was reminded the proposal was shared with his office Wednesday.

“Yeah,” Scott conceded, “and the state is still taking risk.” Asked if anything had changed, he replied, “No, nothing’s changed.”

Yesterday on CNN, Scott reiterated he doesn’t plan to take the money, saying:

What I have said all along is our taxpayers aren't going to take the risk of the cost overrun in building it. It could be $3 billion, the operating costs.

The Orlando Sentinel suggests LaHood’s offer may be part of a lawsuit strategy:

The sudden shift may have been triggered by a possible lawsuit against Scott contending he has overstepped his authority by killing the train. The suit, which could be filed as soon as Monday, is expected to argue that a law passed by the Legislature during a special session in 2009 compels Scott to pursue the train.

Two sources close to the situation said the suit likely would be filed with the state Supreme Court in Tallahassee. It was unclear who would sign on to it.

Meanwhile Andy Kunz, who promotes trains for the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, has taken to the Sentinel to try to smear Reason Foundation’s analysis of the Orlando-to-Tampa rail plan.

The Reason study, authored by Wendell Cox, found Florida taxpayers could be on the hook for as much as $3 billion in construction cost overruns plus operating subsidies if the Orlando to Tampa medium-speed rail system is built.  But Kunz complains that our study shouldn’t dare compare Florida’s train plan to California’s first rail segment. His reasoning is that the two segments “are hardly comparable because the California project has difficult right-of-way, land-use and terrain issues.”

If Kunz had actually read the Reason report, he would know that right-of-way and terrain differences were factored into the comparison all along. As Cox wrote : “The Tampa-to-Orlando line has two things going in its favor in the comparison to California: Right-of-way has largely already been obtained, and there will be less construction on viaducts.” The Reason report compared the cost per mile for the flat, rural, 64-mile starter segment of the California with the cost per mile of the flat, suburban 84-mile Florida project. But Kunz tried to mislead readers into thinking the Reason report compared the per-mile cost of the entire California project with that of Tampa-to-Orlando.

Kunz also laughably tries to massively inflate the potential ridership numbers of the Orlando-Tampa train by claiming that Orlando’s tourist attractions make Fantasyland ridership numbers possible.  He suggests ridership estimates based on Amtrak’s Acela Express—the only medium-speed train in the United States—are far too low and absurdly claims that the Orlando-Tampa ridership estimates should instead be based on the number of riders on all Amtrak trains in and around New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DCcombined.

Even the pro-rail group America 2050 knows this ridership dream is ludicrous. They ranked potential high-speed rail corridors and found that  out of 100 potential U.S. corridors, Orlando to Tampa ranked at the bottom of suggested routes. Their study promoting high-speed rail concluded that “the high number of jobs in tourism and accommodations [in Orlando] alone is not enough to lift their overall scores to compete with corridors in the Northwest, Midwest, and California.”

And yet Orlando-to-Tampa is the rail project that the feds are literally begging to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into.

It is clear at this point that many rail advocates just want to get a semi-high-speed train system, any system, under construction. They figure once it starts it will be hard to stop. So they’ll worry about deficits, cost overruns, and ridership numbers later.

The two routes being pursued right now - Orlando-to-Tampa and Fresno-to-Corcoran-- are two of the absolute worst options for potential high-speed rail ridership. Fresno, Corcoran, Tampa and Orlando aren’t huge population centers and don’t possess central business districts that account for large percentages of their metropolitan area’s employment. As a result, both of those segments are likely to be unmitigated ridership failures that could really sour the general public on high-speed trains.

As Secretary LaHood pleads with Gov. Scott to take taxpayers’ money for the train, he and other high-speed rail advocates are making it increasingly clear that they value ribbon cutting ceremonies and construction starts more than useful infrastructure that moves as many people and goods as possible, as cost-effectively as possible.  Hopefully, Gov. Scott will continue to protect his state’s taxpayer’s from this bad investment.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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