25 February 2011

DOTty about High Speed Rail

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) rejected $2.4 Billion in Porkulus spending “High Speed” rail line in Central Florida.  There was not strong support from Central Florida citizens for this High Speed Rail project.  Voters in in Tampa and Polk County (FL) rejected a 1 cent sales tax increase dedicated to the “Supertrain”. Moreover, Gov. Scott reasoned that the Orlando metropolitan area (2 million) and the Tampa Metropolitan area (2.7 million) was too small to sustain the high speed rail system.  In addition, it is unlikely that the five scheduled stops in the 84 mile route would allow the train to ever reach “high speed” status.

Gov. Scott claimed that he was trying to protect Florida taxpayers from an estimated $3 Billion in cost overruns. The SunRail deal was structured so that Florida was responsible for half of the high speed rail costs and 20% of commuter rail costs.   Gov. Scott suggested “Rather than investing in a high-risk rail project we should be focusing on improving our ports, rail and highway infrastructure.”

Obama Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood snarkily reacted that since there was an overwhelming demand for the stimulus funds earmarked for high speed rail and states like California ought to send a thank you to Florida for rejecting the funds.  LaHood denied that Florida taxpayers would be on the hook for cost overruns or stillborn project planning costs. This assertion is a stark contrast to the New Jersey paradigm, where the Obama Administration levied a charge back of $350 million to the Garden State when Gov. Chris Cristie (R-NJ) refused to write a blank check for the train to Macy’s.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-FL 7th) has been conflicted about rail expenditures.  Rep. Mica inveighed that “Amtrak's Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service." Mica also derided the Obama Administration’s push to spend an additional $53 Billion in passenger rail projects under the auspices of the Federal Rail Authority and Amtrak as “This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio.”   But Mica was also disappointed that the SunRail point was scuttled by Gov. Scott, perhaps because a pet project of a Congressional Cardinal was being sacrificed.

Building upon the fact that Orlando attracts 63 million visitors a year, Rep. Mica renewed a call to complete 21 miles of the proposed SunRail route that would connect Orlando’s main airport with the Orlando Convention Center and Disney World. Based on the massive influx of tourists, this cautious first step on the Central Florida HSR route has a chance of not being a modal money pit.

However it is unlikely that the Obama Administration DOT Secretary LaHood will approve the project on its merits because it is not a high speed rail connecting two cities.  The real reason maybe somewhat murkier.  The Obama Administration was poised to point to SunRail during the President’s re-election effort as a validation of the $836 Billion in Stimulus Spending on shovel ready projects, as well as to burnish the 21st Century Infrastructure improvements and as a sop to green voters who want to force Americans out of their evil polluting automobiles. That argument is less auspicious when it is effectively a commuter rail for tourists.

It is probable that financial and power considerations also make Rep. Mica’s modest proposal less palatable to the Feds.  The State (or municipality) only needs to pick up 20% of commuter rail costs.  A commuter rail between MCO and Disney would be under the auspices of the City of Orlando and Orange County (FL), thus bypassing the authority of the Federal Rail Administration or Amtrak, which is a government sponsored enterprise that has long been a financial featherbed for connected Democrat politicos. No wonder why Between-the-Beltway elites are dotty about trains.

Florida is the fourth most populous state and does not receive anywhere near its fair share of federal transportation expenditures compared to its gas tax contributions to Washington.  It is unseemly to have unwanted federal public policy projects from outside of the state foisted on its citizenry who will bare the brunt of the boondoggle.

But local pet projects of politicians also can be undesirable.  In 1987, the Detroit People Mover was completed at the behest of longtime Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young (D-Detroit) for a mere $187 million.  The 2.9 mile route does nothing to alleviate congestion or commuting.  It does attract 2.7 million in ridership, mainly because the $0.50 fares does not include the $3 per ride that the government absorbs.  It was a vanity project to take advantage of Federal transportation dollars.

If the U.S DOT diverts Florida’s transportation earmark from Florida to California, it will have the appearance of rewarding political friends and punishing foes to push an idealistic ambition.  Considering the estimated cost of $45 Billion for the Golden State High Rail project and the possibility that cost overruns will skyrocket the cost to $60 Billion, they can use all of the earmarks that they can get.

H/T: Orlando Sentinel
H/T: Rick Geller

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