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High-speed rail ridership study found line would have made profit

TALLAHASSEE — Three weeks after Gov. Rick Scott put the brakes on high-speed rail, the Florida Department of Transportation on Wednesday released a study showing the line connecting Tampa to Orlando would have had a $10.2 million operating surplus in 2015, its first year of operation.

The study showed the line would have had a $28.6 million surplus in its 10th year.

The numbers are more optimistic than a 2009 study, which concluded the line would not have seen an operating surplus until 2021.

The $1.3 million study, conducted by the forecasting firms Wilbur Smith Associates and Steer Davies Gleave, shows the line would have had 3.3 million riders in its first year. The previous analysis predicted the line would have had 2.4 million riders in 2015.

Scott, who last month cited concerns about operating losses due to low ridership when he decided to kill construction of the project by rejecting $2.4 billion in federal money, dismissed the ridership study results.

"I had been briefed on their ridership study, and I looked at other ridership studies, and I'm still very comfortable with the decision I made that I don't want the taxpayers of the state on the hook for the cost overruns of building it, the operating costs or giving the money back if it's shut down," he said.

He said he made the decision based on a verbal review of the ridership study, as well as documents provided by the libertarian Reason Foundation and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Scott said he feared the 84-mile line would be a burden to Florida taxpayers, even though private vendors had indicated they would be willing to cover any operating losses or construction cost overruns, and federal officials said Florida would not have to repay the $2.4 billion if the project failed.

A spokeswoman for Scott said he doesn't trust the studies.

"The governor has said all along he believes ridership projections for this and other rail projects are overestimated," said spokeswoman Amy Graham. "Numerous studies support this conclusion."

Wilbur Smith Associates, one of the companies that conducted the study, is a transportation and infrastructure consulting firm founded in 1952. It has 56 offices in eight countries, according to the company's website.

Steer Davies Gleave has 16 offices worldwide, including locations in Boston and Denver, according to its website.

The sunny numbers came way too late for rail proponents, who criticized Scott for turning down the money before all the information was available.

"Now we see more evidence that shows just how profitable high-speed rail would have been," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. "Private firms had been clamoring to bid on Florida's high-speed rail initiative. Now, unfortunately, because of the governor's rigid ideology, these private companies will look to other states. The jobs and economic benefits will follow."

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, criticized Scott for putting a "gag order" on the Department of Transportation to prevent the agency from releasing the ridership study earlier because it had favorable numbers.

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, who unsuccessfully fought Scott's decision in the state Supreme Court, said he doubts an earlier release of the study would have made a difference.

"His conclusion was political, not based on economics, good business or even protecting the taxpayers," Altman said. "As time passes and more information comes out, you can see the injustice that was done to the state of Florida."

In the wake of the study, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is clinging to the idea that the line could be built.

"I still have a sliver of hope that common sense and the facts will prevail," he said.

Others, though, want to just let the matter go.

"Frankly, it's Day 2 of session," said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. "That issue, unless the governor changes his mind or does something differently, is behind us. So we've got to move forward."

A poll conducted by the Tampa Chamber of Commerce shows that 59 percent of Hillsborough County registered voters support a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando. The survey questioned 400 voters likely to participate in the November 2012 election between March 2 and 6 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is expected to announce by the end of the week which states will receive Florida's money. According to an attorney for the governor, the state had already spent about $110 million on the project when Scott announced that he did not want to go forward with it.

Times/Herald staff writers Michael C. Bender and Marc Caputo and Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

High-speed rail ridership study found line would have made profit 03/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 9:15pm]
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