Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Would high-speed rail have reduced traffic deaths on I-4?

Ah, just in time for the Thanksgiving travel season, Florida has once again achieved national prominence. We’re No. 1 — with a body bag! Can’t you feel the pride swelling?

A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finds that Interstate 4 is the most deadly roadway from sea to shining sea. Although I-4 is among the shortest interstates in the country at a mere 132 miles from Tampa to Daytona Beach, it more than holds its own as a ribbon of vehicular mayhem.

Between 2011 and 2015, federal data shows 165 deaths occurred along I-4, or about 1.250 fatalities per mile. The National Safety Council attributed the deaths to speeding, alcohol and distracted driving.

There is also that intangible factor that some people are lousy drivers even in the best of circumstances. Put these folks on I-4 and you have the perfect cocktail for last rites.

And you could assume that since I-4 runs through the tourist mecca of Orlando, some of the fatalities might be linked to the voluminous numbers of confused tourists trying to figure out how to navigate their way to the many attractions.

Chances are if you have regularly driven along I-4, you too have had close brushes with mortality. Talk about a thrill ride!

Of course, some of the death and destruction might have been reduced had not Gov. Rick Scott turned his nose up at receiving $2.4 billion in federal money to build a high-speed rail line on about 84 miles of track from Orlando to Tampa back in 2011.

It was estimated the high-speed rail project would have created as many as 21,000 construction jobs and injected billions of more dollars in economic impact in the communities along the route.

But the prospect of creating a high-speed link apparently was viewed as horribly flawed by the novice governor. The very idea of a high-speed rail system might be viewed as progress, which is a fate to be avoided at all costs in Tallahassee.

Other states weren’t too proud to beg, and eventually the $2.4 billion that could have been used to improve transportation and save lives in Florida at the same time went elsewhere.

In the meantime, the sounds of crushing metal and the wail of sirens continued to resonate along I-4.

Perhaps long ago and far away, before Central Florida emerged as a vast tourist destination with a swelling population, little I-4 might well have sufficed as simply a modest link connecting the state’s coasts.

No more. The mouse has seen to that.

But Florida is also a state that addresses stuff like growing communities and the congestion that comes with them by simply expanding traffic lanes and pouring more concrete. Have you ever noticed the words "pavement" and "progress" have the same number of letters? Such a coincidence.

As a practical matter, the likelihood of the long-ago dream of a high-speed rail connection between Orlando and Tampa ever being realized was a nonstarter. Too little vision. Too much Rick Scott.

One might conclude the rather damning federal indictment of the public safety risks associated with traveling on I-4 would be embarrassing enough to prompt some effort to relieve the stress of traversing the state along a very dangerous corridor.

Instead, the best we can probably expect is a heartfelt, "Buckle up and hope for the best" from your government in inaction.

There are some things motorists can do to lessen the odds of becoming a federal statistic. Some traffic experts have suggested avoiding the Orlando area along I-4 between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., which seems to be the peak period to start praying. Staying home works well, too.

And if you think, especially if you are driving eastbound, that if you can only make it to Daytona you’re in the clear, think again. The feds also aren’t too crazy about either I-95 or U.S. Highway 192 near Melbourne, which also are deathtraps.

Happy holidays.

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