Making rail deal a winner

November 8, 2011  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  News

Tampa Tribune – January 15, 2011

Gov. Rick Scott is getting conflicting advice from within his party about whether to seek bids to build a Tampa-Orlando rapid-rail line or abandon the concept.

The case against taking federal money to build the train comes mostly from people and groups skeptical of government projects, especially transit, and most especially rail. Supporters, including this newspaper, believe that starting the nation’s high-speed rail network in Florida will benefit the state’s economy and image, at little risk to state taxpayers.

Recently, the Reason Foundation released a report that suggests the fast train could be a financial disaster. The report raises fears of cost overruns, low ridership and the sudden disappearance of federal support.

Scott should consider the costs and benefits within the context of broad support for the project from business groups, including the Tampa Bay Partnership and Associated Industries of Florida. Here are some specifics he should think about.

Cost overruns. The Reason report cites examples from around the world of rail projects that have cost the public far more than expected. Unanticipated costs can pop up, such as the collapse a few years ago of part of the elevated toll road from Tampa to Brandon while it was under construction. All the piers had to be reinforced at great cost, but the local Expressway Authority sued for damages and won.

The contract for the rail project can and should be written to protect taxpayers, and the state should be ready to hang tough, as the Expressway Authority did, when the private sector makes mistakes.

Barney Bishop, representing Associated Industries of Florida, makes some important points in a press release: “The successful bidder will be responsible for these costs per contract requirements. Further, the federal government is offering up nearly $2.4 billion in funding that, if left on the table by Florida, will be quickly grabbed by another state.”

Palatial stations. The report warns that in California the cost of a terminal train station is estimated at $850 million. That’s frighteningly high. Florida need not build stations that costly. That’s enough money to build 17 courthouses like the luxurious and controversial “Taj Mahal” courthouse recently built in Tallahassee.

I-4 alternative. It’s better to drive. Citing the cost of gasoline, and not the total costs of operating a car, the report says people can go from Tampa to Orlando, door-to-door, faster and cheaper by car. The assumption is that traffic congestion on I-4 won’t get much worse.

Ridership studies done so far are overly optimistic, the Reason report says. Anyone can make estimates based on a variety of assumptions. The estimate that will carry the most weight will be the investment-grade study done by the private operator before risking private money. Vendors have said they think the train can operate at a profit. The proof will be their signatures on contracts.

Again, we agree with Bishop: “Let’s give the private sector a chance to show us the level of risk and investment it is willing to commit in order to launch high-speed rail in Florida.”

State taxpayers should not risk a dime. This is the thinking of some lawmakers, but it seems short-sighted. Widening roads costs taxpayers a fortune.

Attracting job-creating researchers, like Scripps, requires an investment.

Scott should hear the viewpoint of the many businesses and organizations, including the Tampa Bay Partnership, which says: “The Tampa-Orlando line will create a new SuperRegion that can lead to a new foundation for sustainable economic prosperity.” The partnership expects the rapid rail to bring opportunities for better managing growth, cutting pollution and working toward energy independence.

Congress may eliminate funding. That would be hard to do, since the money is already allocated, but it is possible. So are train wrecks, terrorist attacks and Cat-5 hurricanes. A state frozen by fears of the worst case imaginable will never be a state that attracts the kind of innovators, investors, inventors and entrepreneurs it needs for economic revival.

The choice isn’t between being overly cautious or recklessly bold. Scott should simply try to negotiate a great rail deal for the state. All he needs is good business sense and political courage.

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