By J. Robert McClure III, PhD., President and CEO of The James Madison Institute
Originally Posted on WCTV6-CBS Editorial Blog on February 28, 2011Gov. Rick Scott did a big favor for Florida when he derailed the plan to build a so-called high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa. Scuttling this misguided project and the follow-up plan to add an Orlando-to-Miami link will spare future generations the risk of wasting an inordinate share of Florida’s transportation dollars to subsidize a money-losing enterprise. As the Reason Foundation’s transportation expert Bob Poole pointed out in the Journal of The James Madison Institute, “Only two of the world’s HSR lines—Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon—cover both their capital costs and operating costs from passenger revenues. All the others have had some or all of their capital costs paid for out of general tax revenues.” In other words, high-speed rail, virtually everywhere it has been tried in the world, is a financial black hole for the taxpayer.Moreover, neither Florida corridor has anywhere near the population density of those marginally profitable corridors in Japan and France – nations where the high-speed rail lines, unlike those proposed for Florida, connect with well-developed transit systems in destination cities. It is possible, of course, that high-speed rail might break even somewhere in the United States – despite the cost-inflating practices of the railroad unions – if it linked transit-friendly cities in densely populated corridors, perhaps where other modes of travel are plagued by severe traffic congestion and/or weather-related disruptions.Not in Florida, though. At Orlando’s airport, for example, arriving travelers who might have been tempted to take the train to Disney World, Lakeland, or Tampa may well ask, “What’ll we do when we get there? Rent a car? And if we’re going to rent a car anyway, why not just do so from the get-go?”Indeed, for an entire family arriving by air and sizing up rail’s projected per-person fares, renting a car may well be cheaper and offer much more flexibility to get around and see many of the attractions – beaches, other theme parks, etc. – that are not anywhere near the high-speed rail stops.Meanwhile, most of the other ostensible patrons — Floridians who reside in this region — have their own cars. Most also have the Interstate and other roads conveniently nearby if they wish to travel from Tampa to Orlando or vice-versa. The same goes for the millions of tourists who arrive in the family car.In other words, no one anywhere has proven that high speed rail in Florida can make economic sense. These are difficult times for both family and state budgets. Why should Florida taxpayers agree to one more government program that would require extra tax dollars. Job creation? The best long-term job creation allows the private sector to keep more of its own money to save, spend or invest.The truth is that in its mismatch of costs vs. benefits, this boondoggle resembles one of the more notorious transportation earmarks that rightly enraged taxpayers worried about runaway federal spending and debt.Remember the “Bridge to Nowhere” inserted in the federal budget by Rep. Don Young, R-AK? That $320 million project was to link Ketchikan (pop. about 9,000) with the Island of Gravina (pop. 50, but the site of the town’s tiny airport) to spare the locals the inconvenience (20 minutes) and cost ($6) of a ferry ride.Yet the price tag for that project almost seems a bargain now compared to the multi-billion dollar costs – immediate and future — for Florida’s rail boondoggle. Therefore, it’s good news that Governor Scott made a gutsy and well-reasoned decision to halt this wasteful project.