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Robert Trigaux

High-speed rail: In week since funding unveiled, buzz of naysayers arrives as if by bullet train



Obamatampatownhallhighspeedrailap Wake up and good morning. It's been less than a week since President Obama and VP Biden came to Tampa (AP photo) and handed out goody bags containing $8 billion in federal money for the start of a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando and similar rail projects across the country. The initial Wow feeling has faded a bit and, understandably, a vigorous debate fed by the Internet is under way over the potentials and pitfalls of high-speed rail projects in the United States.

Here are 4 issues, among many others, raised thus far that are at least worthy of consideration (or perhaps debunking) from a myriad of sources. Let's get to them:

4. Here's my biggest question. If Florida requested $2.6 billion but received only $1.25 billion from the feds for the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail project, (a) where does Florida get the remaining $1.35 billion just to make up that difference and, (b) how will a state already billions in the budget hole get the job finished? One estimate of the Tampa-Orlando link's total cost is $3.5 billion, which means we'd have to come up with $2.25 billion to finish the project (assuming the feds do not kick in more money later). Consider this AP story headlined Money Woes Threaten Bullet Train's Future in Cash Strapped States asking similar questions.

3. If Tampa-Orlando did not get all they wanted for high-speed rail, they got a lot more than others seeking  their own fast train projects. Consider the Georgia's Atlanta-to-Macon project, which was largely skipped by the feds. And the Northeast's ambitious plan to link Boston, New York and Montreal by a system of 110-mph trains made almost no progress, as this Hartford (Conn.) Courant story headlined State Comes Up Short In Obama's Rail Funding  and the Philadelphia Inquirer's story Pennsylvania left at the station for  high-speed funds indicate. There are lots of these stories across the country, so take comfort knowing Tampa Bay was among the receivers.

2. There's plenty of skepticism -- or is it cynicism? -- that Florida can't afford what's on its plate already so how on earth will it ever make a go of high-speed rail? Miami Herald columnist and unparalleled modern Florida commentator Carl Hiaasen says it best here:

"Of all the ways Florida could blow through $1.25 billion in federal recovery funds, a bullet train is certainly the flashiest. Connecting Tampa, Orlando and Miami by high-speed rail is a scheme that's been chugging around for decades, and the prospects for profitability are the same today as they always were: Nil. The money delivered by President Barack Obama last week in Tampa should have come with a note: 'Here's a gift from Uncle Sam. Now go build yourselves something you can't possibly afford to operate.'"

1. The Wall Street Journal published a commentary from St. Louis transportation consultant Wendell Cox headlined The Runaway Subsidy Train that pans high-speed rail as a financial black hole opening just as the  nation sets new deficit records. Cox repeats a theme already commonly heard here, and one the backers of high-speed and metro light-rail systems will have to answer soon:

"The administration is planning on giving Florida $1.25 billion to build a Tampa to Orlando high-speed rail line. The train on that route is expected to hit speeds of 160 mph and to make a trip between the two cities in about 45 minutes. This will be helpful if you happen to live in the Orlando Station and have business in the Tampa Station. But most travelers will be better off driving."

One has to wonder if the Obama administration's decision to dilute $8 billion among so many projects is a strategy that will doom or seriously stall the completion of any high-speed rail link. In some attempt to make so many people somewhat happy, the feds may end up making everybody unhappy and a whole lot poorer in the process.

We'll revisit the national buzz on high-speed rail often as more news of the rail plans and funding sources emerge. These are all long-term projects and a first week's worth of critical comments are not the final word.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:27am]


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