There are times when proposals come across my personal radar screen that just overwhelm my limited ability to comprehend. My radar is beeping really loud trying to figure out this $3 billion choo-choo bullet train. (Officials say $2.6 billion, but I added the overrun cost now.)
It will travel along the 2012 voter-rich Interstate 4 corridor, although I'm sure that wasn't on the minds of those who pushed for funding (wink, wink). The fare each way to Orlando would cost around $20 to $25 (comparable to Amtrak's fares).
There are many aspects about this proposal that I think are pure myths. Here are a few:
• The train will save you 32 to 37 minutes each way to and from the Orlando airport, officials have said. But what about the time it would take to drive to the station, park, buy your ticket and wait for the train to depart? Then how do you get around in Orlando if you aren't going to the airport or Disney, which may provide a shuttle van to visit Mickey?
• It has been said that the train would provide roughly 23,000 new jobs. Ha, Ha. Exactly where will the bulk of the new jobs be located? Along the I-4 corridor — or someplace in Japan, Europe or Canada, where the train and rail builders will likely be?
• The train will bring more tourists to Tampa.
I seriously doubt tourists will come from Idaho merely because of a choo-choo train. It could, however, steal passengers from the airports in the Tampa and St. Petersburg areas to the Orlando airports.
The truth is that when it comes to this proposal and spending the money, we in Hillsborough must ask ourselves two fundamental and serious questions: First, what is the best way to spend our tax dollars?
On a train to Orlando that you might ride less than five times per year? Or, on improving our local infrastructure, from which you could benefit every day. Think of widened streets, fixed potholes, more sidewalks and streetlights, high-speed bus lines, public showers for the homeless and improved draining. And why not use the money to boost efforts in building light rail so we can get where we need to go within our own county — along Interstate 275, I-4, Dale Mabry Highway and Hillsborough Avenue? (Local officials already are discussing whether voters should decide in November if they want a new tax to help pay for light rail here.)
The second question we must ask is this: Is it better to save 32 to 37 minutes going to Orlando less than five times per year (based on bullet train officials' travel time estimates) or save 55 minutes each day going to and from work, shopping, or school on an improved local transit system and enjoying other improvements in our community each day?
I am more concerned about saving time on my daily commutes from Carrollwood to downtown Tampa. I have not traveled to Orlando in two years. If I need to go there, hey, I'll just drive. At least then I will have a way of getting around.
There will come a time when the cities in Florida need to be interconnected by passenger rail service. But before that should happen, we need to develop the infrastructure in our cities and counties. The high-speed bullet choo-choo train will only benefit the bullet train organizers, real estate investors and the foreign rail/train builders. It might also benefit a few tourists coming to Tampa to buy tax-free cigarettes or gamble at the casino. But even then, they would need to take a taxi from the train station. It would be cheaper if they just rented a car in Orlando.
There is a better way of spending $3 billion.
Al Mccray is a Tampa resident and freelance writer whose work occasionally appears in the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.