Gov. Rick Scott’s decision Wednesday to block the high speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando was a surprise to me.
Maybe I’m just naive, but I figured he would hear enough persuasive arguments about the long-term benefits of high speed rail from proponents such as state Sen. Paula Dockery that he would take the federal government’s $2.4 billion and move forward with the project.
But Scott was swayed by the other side, the side that got him elected. This is why his decision is understandable. There is a huge anti-spending sentiment in the country right now, and rightfully so considering our precarious debt situation.That sentiment carried Scott into Tallahassee.
When I first heard about the Obama administration’s plan to spend $8 billion on high speed rail I thought, “What a waste!” I’d rather see that money spent on improving and maintaining our current infrastructure that is in decay and some places and in need of expansion in others.
And high speed rail would cost Florida taxpayers more than $200 million, and I can understand Scott’s desire to save every penny he can, where he can. I agree with that mind-set.
But there are some key differences between the high speed rail project and your run-of-the-mill government programs.
First, the federal money was only going to be directed toward high speed rail. There’s no point in arguing over whether it should be spent on ports or highways or bridges, because this money was never going to be used for that. By saying no to high speed rail, Scott is saying no to the full $2.4 billion.
Second, there was plenty of opportunity to require whatever private firms build the project to actually cover the remaining construction costs and any future overruns or revenue shortfalls. The overrun liability is key, because I don’t think high speed rail is going to make money for a while, especially the Tampa-Orlando line. It’s also likely to be more expensive to build than projected, as almost anything of this magnitude is.
Scott is right to be worried about taxpayers being forced to subsidize the project in the future, but he didn’t even have a bid process to see if any firms would be willing to bite that bullet. If no company stepped up and took on that responsibility, then fine, block the project. But I’ve read where seven groups of companies were ready to come to the table and make a deal, so Scott should have at least listened to their bids.
Third, this was an incredible opportunity to invest in America’s future and to make Florida a leader in new technologies. I truly believe high speed rail is going to happen eventually in this country, and Florida would have been uniquely positioned as a key player in the national system’s development had this project gone through. Now we’re on the sidelines and could be left licking the scraps off the floor for years to come.
While I don’t think the Tampa-Orlando line will be profitable or that attractive for riders in general, the line would have eventually gone to Miami, and then possibly to Gainesville, Jacksonville and Tallahassee. At some point it would connect with Atlanta, and Washington, and New York, Chicago and St. Louis. As the national network expands, the benefits of high speed rail become more apparent and we could have a viable alternative to driving or flying, just as Europe does.
But, for now, driving is significantly cheaper in America than it is in Europe, and it’s still more convenient for us to hop in the car for a trip than to take a train. I just don’t think that will be the case forever, as gas prices are sure to rise and traffic will continue to put more of a strain on our current infrastructure. At some point rail is going to become a viable option.
With Scott’s decision, however, Florida loses the opportunity to prepare for the future and ensure that our transportation needs are secure when we no longer view driving or flying as the best ways to travel. I appreciate his desire to control spending and protect taxpayers, but this was not the best way to do it.
Hopefully the state will get another crack at the project down the road.