A High-Speed Rail Resurrection? Unlikely

Publish Date: 
Friday, October 3, 2014 - 5:30pm

By Nancy Smith, Sunshine State News

When Barack Obama took office in 2008, a lot of people -- some of them in Florida -- thought they were going to make a killing off of high-speed rail.

A continent-wide network of dedicated intercity passenger rail lines with 125-mph trains -- same as in Europe and Asia -- that was the president's vision. It was what he pledged in his 2011 State of the Union address when he said 80 percent of Americans would have access to high-speed rail within 25 years.

Now we know fairly conclusively, the sea-to-shining-sea high-speed rail system is not going to happen.

Even though Congress made $8 billion available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the stimulus money) -- and added $2.1 billion through annual appropriations -- the president's dream fell apart like a cake in a rain shower.

Respected public policy consultant Kenneth Orski said in the latest edition of his Innovation Briefs, Obama's vision "lacked realism and its implementation left much to be desired. The plan failed to convince Congress or to inspire the public, and today the goal remains as distant as it was when first announced five years ago. As the New York Times succinctly observed, the high-speed rail projects 'have gone mostly nowhere' ( Aug. 6, 2014, "11 Billion Later, High-Speed Rail Is Inching Along")."

In Central Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott halted the Tampa-to-Orlando rail line in 2011, there are still local folks -- landowners and all manner of contractors -- hanging out, waiting to cash in on a reversal of fortune if new Democrat Charlie Crist is elected governor. Almost as soon as Crist got into the race, he derided incumbent Rick Scott for rejecting the federal money. "What was he thinking?" Crist asked. "I'm going to do the right thing for Florida and get the stimulus money back."

Scott turned $2.4 billion down three years ago claiming there were too many financial uncertainties in the ridership plan and too many strings attached. Governors in other states -- California excepted -- balked for similar reasons.

Scott's opponents, meanwhile, called the governor shortsighted and unduly timid. They likened high-speed rail to the interstate highway program. "It took a lot of resolve and commitment to get the highway program done decades ago," said former Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood. "We can do it again with rail."

I can't see it. As Orski and other transportation economists have observed: What made the interstate highway program politically feasible and financially sound was the concept of a user fee.

"That fee was collected from millions of highway users and dedicated exclusively to the program," said Orski. "A national rail program, on the other hand, could not hope to have this kind of revenue stream. Instead, it would need to depend on massive federal subsidies for years to come."

With that in mind, we're down to what the high-speed rail squabble will mean in Florida on Election Night.

You have a Republican governor who turned down stimulus money for a Tampa-to-Orlando link, who now is in cautious support of All Aboard Florida. AAF is a not-quite-private Miami-to-Orlando passenger service set to run on expanded freight tracks, requiring a $1.5 billion Federal Railroad Administration loan and angering a coastal chunk of the state the governor needs to get re-elected.

Then you have his Democratic challenger in support of high-speed rail, but oddly, not the project in the works. Well ... wait a minute ... depends who he's talking to. Crist says he's still taking All Aboard Florida under advisement. Maybe the deal will look better later.

The stimulus money is gone to other states. If elected, Crist can't get it back, even if he tries. He most certainly can get a Federal Railroad Administration loan, just like All Aboard Florida has -- if he later decides for sure he likes that project enough to apply the same financing to an Orlando-Tampa link.

I'm betting when the election is over, so is Charlie's interest in resurrecting high-speed rail.

But how will the candidates' back-and-forth sound bites on HSR play out in the polls between now and Nov. 4? With three controversial constitutional amendments on the ballot, we'll have to wait and see if any pollster asks.