Thursday, August 13, 2009

Can Florida fast trains get back up to speed?

High speed trains have the same effect on most of us that high-end sports cars do -- we envy those who have them and want one for our own.

Over the past decade I have been involved in two efforts to bring high speed rail to Florida: the Florida Overland Express (FOX) project and the Global Rail Consortium (GRC) bid to become the state's HSR operator.

FOX came the closest to reality. Sen. Bob Graham obtained $4B in federal money only to see the project quashed when Jeb Bush took office.

Florida has seen a constitutional amendment in favor of HSR passed and then rescinded by the voters.

Now comes the checkbook-toting Obama administration with an $8B war chest and plans to kick start high speed rail in the U.S.. Florida requested $2.53B to build an Orlando to Tampa link. The feds will announce the winners in October.

When all the dust settles it will come down to an old familiar theme -- political will. Will the Florida Legislature commit to funding high speed rail when the state, like most others, is facing a financial crisis?

During the FOX and GRC efforts I got into the numbers. Independent international experts in ridership forecasting confirmed that there would be enough riders to make the system a good investment for the state in the long term. After so many years, the state would own the rail line and the private sector would try to recoup its investment from ridership and real estate investments at the stations. At least that was the scenario.

Real estate investments at the stations might have been dicey given today's real estate market. However, I am convinced the ridership would have been there. Traveling between Miami, Orlando and Tampa isn't getting any easier.

European and Asian markets have proved the viability of high speed rail for the short hops with airlines concentrating on the longer hauls.

Ultimately, that's been the downfall for high speed rail. Trips between Miami, Orlando and Tampa are a lucrative market for some airlines and they have spent money in Tallahassee and Washington to keep HSR from ever happening.

Hopefully, the current stimulus money will help HSR get on track. Florida needs every bit of transportation infrastructure it can muster.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.

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