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http://www2.tbo.com/content/2011/mar/13/VWOPINO1-a-narrow-train-of-thought/news-opinion-editorials/ » |
Published: March 13, 2011
Gov. Rick Scott rejected funding for high-speed rail in Florida because he didn't believe the private ridership study that projected it would operate at a profit.
He also didn't trust the federal promise that state taxpayers were not at risk. He didn't believe business leaders that it would be an economic boon. He had no faith in the construction bids that would have come from private companies.
His inflexible skepticism of rail is celebrated by his supporters as proof he has the courage of his convictions. A conviction unaffected by all contradictory evidence also suggests arrogance.
The state had contracted a scientific review of the feasibility of high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando. At a price of $1.3 million, the study was to be a policy guide — more than a good guess but less than a guarantee.
Wilbur Smith Associates and Steer Davies Gleave projected that in its first year the train line would have 3.3 million riders and produce an operating profit of $10.2 million. By the 10th year, the operating surplus would be up to $28.6 million.
Not waiting for the study to be released, Scott told the federal government that unless it agreed to spend it on something Scott approved of, it could keep the $2.4 billion Florida had been awarded for the project. No matter what anyone said or what private investors were willing to kick in, Scott didn't want an Obama-sponsored train in his state.
As for the study, we agree with Scott that a daily ridership of 3.3 million seems high. That's approaching 5,000 riders in each direction every day.
But it's also easy to see how a fast train could make a profit for a competent operator, as industry experts have long said it would. Remember, the money for the infrastructure would not have to be repaid from operational revenue. It would not be like a toll road that must repay the bondholders who finance it.
The federal government would have paid for the track. (Which is to say Florida would get more of its federal fuel taxes back.) The state would provide free right-of-way, again, already paid for by taxpayers.
Companies were, in fact, eager to bid on the opportunity to build and operate the train. They know that rail travel would be most appealing during peak hours when I-4 traffic is at its worst. They also expect fuel prices to increase.
And in Asia and Europe, technological improvements in rail travel in recent years have been impressive, almost unbelievable.
Scott's doubts that rail is feasible mirror the skepticism of the Paris edition of the New York Herald, which a few years after the Wright brothers had made the first powered airplane flight, wrote: "They are in fact fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It's easy to say, 'We have flown.'"
It is also easy to say, the Tampa-Orlando train will operate in the black. But how can Scott be so sure it can't?
With so much public money already invested in the project, it would have cost Florida little to test the market. The state rail authority or a new agency created by Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando and Miami should have been allowed to find out exactly how much private investors were willing to risk. That would have been the intellectually honest and politically inclusive approach, even if Scott remained unconvinced.
Scott's arbitrary handling of the issue says he doesn't want more information. He assumes the private investors, just like the train experts hired by the state and everyone else supporting the project, are miscalculating.
That outcome perfectly fits his political orientation that rail transit is a waste of money. Even if history proves Scott right, it's not a rational way to deal with opportunities that may never come again.
Scott is sending an early message that he doesn't plan to govern in an open, deliberative way. To him, nothing matters more than his personal ideology.
It's an incautious and potentially costly way to run a state.
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