Could Florida get another chance at high-speed rail under Biden?

‘Florida is such a great candidate for rail,’ Pete Buttigieg said. The state has heard that before.
A Brightline passenger train passes by on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019, in Oakland Park.
A Brightline passenger train passes by on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019, in Oakland Park. [ BRYNN ANDERSON | AP ]
Published May 24, 2021

Eleven years have passed since President Barack Obama landed in Tampa with the promise of a gift that could transform Central Florida: a federally funded high-speed rail line to Orlando.

Not a single track was laid between the two cities. In Florida and across the country, the tea party wave brought in a new class of Republican leaders wanting to slash government spending. Among the programs they killed was Obama’s $8 billion vision for a national network of fast-moving trains.

Enter President Joe Biden, whose well-established love for train travel earned him the moniker “Amtrak Joe.” The Biden administration hopes to revive those stalled rail projects and the Sunshine State remains a focal point of those efforts, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said.

“Florida is an example of a state where you’ve got a lot of major metro centers that are not so far away from each other that you couldn’t make day trips, but you need to have fast, affordable, and increasingly clean means of getting there,” Buttigieg told the Tampa Bay Times in a recent interview. “Which is one of the reasons why Florida is such a great candidate for rail.”

Biden has proposed an expansive $4 trillion infrastructure package that would include new investments in more eco-friendly transit. Cities and states will have the opportunity to apply for grants to expand bus service, build bike lanes and to bring rail into new communities.

Those grants won’t be enough for America to lead the world in high-speed rail, as Buttigieg has proposed. “But it will be enough to set up routes between city pairs that can help demonstrate that America, too, can benefit from high speed rail,” he said.

Like Buttigieg, Obama hoped that a successful demonstration of modern transit would open the floodgates to demand in communities across the country. The Tampa to Orlando line was supposedly the best candidate because it could get online the quickest. The land was already set aside for a rail line and it had political support from then-Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican at the time.

Obama announced the project in his first State of the Union address, and also set aside billions of dollars in the federal stimulus package for new train lines in other states. But the idea was swiftly met by a well-organized opposition of local activists and national conservative groups. Like Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin, Rick Scott was elected governor in 2010 on a promise to reject Obama’s rail dollars. He did so quickly after taking office, insisting the cost didn’t justify the expense of a train between two cities 90 miles apart.

Obama left office with one high-speed rail project under construction in California. After delays and cost overruns, the line remains years away from completion.

Scott, now in the U.S. Senate, is one of the most vocal critics of Biden’s new infrastructure package. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Times, Scott said taxes and debt to pay for the plan will “kill the American dream.”

To make high-speed rail a reality, Biden and Buttigieg will have to succeed where Obama could not. As Obama’s vice president, Biden had a front-row seat as these projects fell off the vine. Buttigieg did as well from his perch as a mayor of South Bend, Ind., as rail money was turned away that could have connected neighboring Midwestern states.

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Buttigieg said the new administration has learned from past mistakes. While Obama dictated from Washington where new train lines would spring up, Buttigieg wants the demand for rail to come from communities. The federal government would provide the financial support and expertise to help make those local visions a reality.

Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said that approach may prove to be more effective.

“President Obama was right in what he was trying to do. The intention was dead on,” Buckhorn said. “What President Biden has learned, and that’s partially his nature, is these solutions are easier to arrive at and get done quicker if you have community buy in.”

“Like all smart elected officials, you learn from the challenges of your predecessors,” he added.

But that approach will take time. Biden’s plan prioritizes repairing the country’s existing infrastructure, building 500 electric vehicle charging stations nationwide and a $400 billion investment in home and community health care for older and disabled Americans.

Some Democrats are pushing for more focus on rail. U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and a leading proponent of rail expansion, introduced a plan to spend $205 billion over five years to build a high-speed rail network. Several members of Congress have proposed legislation requiring the federal government to spend as much on buses and trains as it does on paving highways and roads, which would quadruple the country’s investments in transit.

“We really need to be super aggressive about expanding rail service around the country,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance. “We don’t have decades to wait any more.”

Even without federal investment, there has been progress in Florida in bringing high-speed trains online. In 2018, Brightline launched the first privately operated high-speed rail line in the country linking Miami and Wast Palm Beach. The company recently passed the halfway point on construction to bring service between South Florida and Orlando. It’s scheduled for completion at the end of 2022.

Brightline remains in negotiations with the Florida Department of Transportation to extend its line from Orlando to Tampa. The two sides have until July 31 to reach a lease agreement on the state-owned right-of-way between the two cities.

But opposition to rail didn’t subside after Obama’s failed attempt. Pinellas County voters in 2014 rejected a sales tax increase for new transit after a fierce campaign against a proposed 24-mile light rail system connecting St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Hillsborough County has encountered similar headwinds attempting to jump start conversations about trains.

Brightline, too, has faced lawsuits from governments along the Treasure Coast whose leaders expressed concerns about the safety record of the rail company and unexpected costs to taxpayers to pay for safety enhancements at county-owned crossings.

Martin County settled its lawsuit with Brightline in 2018. A similar suit by Indian River County was dismissed last year, but anti-rail sentiment remains.

“If you’re concerned about people in your community who need transportation, the money can be better spent on bus systems,” said former Indian County Commissioner Bob Solari, one of the area’s most vocal opponents of rail.

In recent testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on railroads, Brightline CEO Michael Reininger urged Congress to create policies that encourage more private investment in high-speed rail by making it easier and cheaper for companies to borrow money for these expensive projects.

“We see multiple opportunities,” Reininger said, “to again break free from the inertia that has historically restrained high-speed rail in the U.S.”