Off The Rails: Will Florida Choose Anti-Train Ideology Over Job Creation?

  • Published on December 18th, 2010

Disney TrainThe score so far: Ideology-driven governors in New Jersey, Wisconsin and Ohio have turned down scads of Federal money for rail projects. They say their states can’t afford the small portion they were slated to contribute, and so they have blown off more than a billion dollars in funding, and the job creation that would go with it. Now Floridians are concerned that their new Tea Party-backed governor is about to do the same thing, jeopardizing a line from Tampa to Disney’s tourist Mecca of Orlando.

In an editorial, the Orlando Sentinal writes,

Could Rick Scott, who’s all about getting people back to work, manage to kill the planned Orlando to Tampa high-speed rail line and the 24,000 jobs it would bring Florida?

The answer’s yes, if, in the end, the governor-elect cares more about partisan politics than an economic opportunity that anyone with his supposed business savvy would be daft to resist.

Regrettably, Mr. Scott’s sending signals that to him, politics may well be more important than doing what’s clearly in the best interests of Florida. How unfortunate for the state, which needs the stimulative, potentially transformative high-speed line.

…Florida would need 23,000 people to build the rail line, and to find as many as 1,000 workers to operate it. The train would stimulate businesses along the line and help turn Orlando and Tampa into a single market that attracts entrepreneurs eager to reap the benefits of the nation’s most advanced transit system.

And it would offer commuters and tourists an alternative to an increasingly gridlocked I-4. It also would prove cheaper than the alternative: Building another lane of Interstate 4 — just from Tampa to Lakeland — would cost $3 billion.

Scott railed against the Federal stimulus plan during the campaign, and squeeked by in a narrow victory (despite concerns that in his previous job, as head of hospital chain Columbia/HSC, his company had to pay a record fine of $1.7 billion for medicaid fraud).

Now he says it’s not the cost that bothers him but the potential for over-runs.

“Do we want infrastructure? You better believe it,”  Scott told a group of business leaders on a factfinding tour last week. “From my standpoint, I better know what it costs. I’m responsible to the taxpayers of this state.”

But the St. Petersburg Times casts doubt on that:

Meetings between Florida transportation officials and bid teams last month revealed that many of the groups are willing to cover any construction cost overruns and assume some ridership risk in exchange for the opportunity to build the first high speed rail line in the United States.

Tim Brown, a spokesman for a seven-company team that includes Virgin, said it’s customary for the private sector to assume ridership risk in high speed rail projects.

So is Scott just fishing for an excuse to cut the line? Republican State Senator Paula Dockery,  a member of Scott’s transition team, told the Times, “I don’t think Rick Scott is opposed to high speed rail. He’s opposed to entering a bad deal that doesn’t have a good return on investment.”

But when pressed on the issue of “What IS a good deal for Florida?” Scott has been refusing to answer, calling the question “hypothetical,” at the same time expressing surprise that there aren’t answers to such basic questions as “what the operating costs are likely to be compared to the money expected to be generated by fares, and whether a private company would be willing to run the trains.”

Apparently Scott has never heard of Google, or doesn’t read his local papers. Isn’t it awesome that, by reading Red Green and Blue, you can be better informed than the governor-elect of Florida?

In the meantime, while Scott cogitates in the high ideological realms, down in the real world everything has ground to a halt. Work was supposed to begin in March – with 2,000 hires! – but now that’s on hold.

“The most important thing at this stage is for the state to launch the proposal process,” Brown said. “By releasing the procurement, the state will enable the private sector to provide innovative ideas to make this project a success.”

Jobs, jobs, jobs

On Thursday we reported (“Expensive Fallout Continues from GOP Train Rejection”) how the decision by Wisconsin’s new Tea Party Governor, Scott Walker, to turn down the high-speed rail money were creating job-killing ripple effects.

Now Talgo says there’s no reason to have a facility in Milwaukee, and will shutter the place, taking 125 high-paying jobs with it. The economic ripple effect from that move alone will cost hundreds more jobs, on top of the 5,000 jobs that would have been created by the rail line construction and thousands more that would have been created by the boost in economic activity…

It’s not just the rail-line itself that Walker killed. A new train station in downtown Madison was part of the plan; this was going to be a catalyst for downtown redevelopment, but with the money gone, city planners are scrambling to figure out what to do with the gaping hole in their blueprints. With the keystone removed, plans for hotels, office buildings, and an underground parking garage may all collapse as well…

And a high-end restaurant across the street from the planned station has already said it will be shutting down, since rail customers had been a big part of their business plan.

“Basically, thanks to the vote by the GOP and Scott Walker administration, I’m going to terminate 45 jobs and $1.8 million in commerce per year,” said restaurateur Chris Berge.

We’ll see if Florida’s politicians will jump on the Tea Party bandwagon, or actually look at the real-world repercussions of their grandstanding before they leap.

At the California High Speed Rail Blog, Robert Cruickshank notes another problem – the incoming ideologues in the House of Representatives will likely try to kill rail funding in next year’s budget. It would actually be good for the Department of Transportation to push the issue now, because it would be able to re-allocate  the money (as it did with Wisconsin’s and Ohio’s) to other rail projects.

“But the FRA and the USDOT would have to act quickly,” Cruickshank pointed out. “If the money is awarded by the end of this year, it makes it harder for Republicans in the House to undo that funding in 2011. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood should demand that Scott tell him yes or no in the next few days. If he says no, then move the money to the states that want it – including us here in California.”

More on this issue:

(Mickey Mouse Train cartoon © Disney)

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.
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  • Yes, we will pick our ideology, over creating a few jobs. What’s it to you? Don’t we live in a Republic? The people have voted on this issue so many times I’ve lost count. Why don’t you left-wing, new-urbanist whackos get over it?

  • The only thing trains are good for is moving goods, and freight. People don’t ride trains anymore becvause the car is much cheaper, and easier to use.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      Except when it isn’t. If you’ve moved yourself out to the suburbs, it’s cheaper and easier. If you live in an urban area, it’s MUCH cheaper and MUCH easier to use a train. If you’re a businessman travelling for meetings between Boston and New York or Madison and Wisconsin, it’s cheaper and easier to take the train – it leaves from downtown, where your office is, and drops you off downtown, where your meeting is. You don’t have to fight traffic to and from the airport, and you don’t have to get groped by security for two hours before your flight. Plus you can work or read while you travel.

  • the voters have already spoken on this issue. Why can’t they just let it go?

    • Jeremy Bloom

      Actually, they HAVEN’T spoken on this issue. And I’ll bet if you polled most voters they’d choose to not spend money fixing the potholes in the road in front of YOUR house, or to pay for streetlights on YOUR street, too. They might even vote to let your house burn down rather than pay for putting out YOUR fire.
      But we don’t provide public services that way. Because it’s a STUPID IDEA.

  • I know libs don’t care how much it costs, but the government spending money to “create” jobs is never as efficient as the private sector.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      You still don’t get it, do you? The “private sector” you’re talking about doesn’t exist any more.
      Bush gave humongous tax cuts to the wealthy. And had the worst job creation of any President since Hoover. They took the money – and didn’t create jobs.
      Today, banks and businesses are sitting on a huge pool of money. Instead of creating jobs, they’re gambling with it on derivatives in the stock market. Why bother actually making products when you can pull in more money making bets?
      And one final time: America was CREATED by your government subsidizing the railroads. Without the subsidized railroads, there would have been no American West. No Topeka, no Fargo, no Billings.
      Creating transportation corridors is one of the things government has ALWAYS done best, from Roman Times to today. That’s why your American government pays for highways, for airports and the air traffic control system. All those goods coming in from China are shipped through government-run port facilities.
      America CAN do some good things, no matter how many times you repeat the “Government is the enemy that can do nothing right” mantra.
      When are you going to stop trashing America?

  • If these rail projects were such a great idea, private companies would be doing it. But they are only going to get involved unless the state covers their liability. What does that tell you? This is a disaster waiting to happen! Why can’t anyone understand that if the government doesn’t have the money to do something, they just shouldn’t do it?!

    • Jeremy Bloom

      One more time: The government already heavily subsidizes transport, by completely paying for highways and bridges, and paying for airports and the air traffic control system.
      That’s what government does, and HAS done from the beginning of this country. This country was BUILT by subsidizing rail out to the vast territories of the plains and the west coast. Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado… they all wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the railroads.
      For some reason, though, Republicans have decided that the transportation subsidies are evil socialism… but only if they apply to railroads.
      (I suppose you’re also totally against nuclear power, on the same grounds?)

  • Tri-Rail(the Miami version of high-speed rail) is just now reaching their ridership goals, 20 YEARS AFTER IT WAS BUILT! We here in Central Florida can’t afford that kind of investment(one that doesn’t pay a return for 20years) Who could?

    • Jeremy Bloom

      Thank god people like you haven’t been in charge of our country from the beginning. “Erie Canal? Can’t afford it.” “Trans-continental railroad? Can’t afford it.” “Panama Canal? Can’t afford it.”
      You think America is great? THEN LET US BE GREAT. We’re the greatest nation on earth, and we can afford a high-speed rail network.
      Stop nickel-and-diming us into a third world county!

  • As a Californian I would like to see the bulk of any money turned back by Florida reallocated to my state. If our share of any reallocation was around 1.5 billion we could match it with another 1.5 billion from our prop 1-A bond funds. This would be enough to get us to Bakersfield with money left over to help fund the next crucial segment which would be toward either Los Angeles or The Bay Area.

    But as an American I would much rather see Florida keep the money and build the line from Tampa to Orlando. If Florida goes ahead as planned, within a year and a half the United States would have true high speed rail systems under construction on each coast, and as construction proceeded on each system enthusiasm for high speed would mount throughout the country.