Dr. Strange Train

Or: How I learned to start worrying and hate the bullet train

Gridlocked residents of South Florida are almost sure to lose this high-speed game. When cost overruns and low ridership sour the public's taste for bullet trains, Central Florida will have theirs. Builders of the first segment of the system in Central Florida will likely be ready to break ground before the opposition can get a vote. Broward and Palm Beach taxpayers will foot the bill for tourists to shoot from Walt Disney World to the sugar sands of the gulf beaches, for commuters in Lakeland to get to jobs in Tampa and Orlando. That might be fine for those in the Tampa Bay area who have eyed tourists streaming into Disney with envy since the resort attraction opened in 1971. And it will be great for Polk County developers who are already turning orange groves into gated developments.

"They want the rest of the state to build them a train," Goodstein complains of Central Florida proponents. "It's insane."

Fred Harper

The idea of a bullet train has been rumbling around the state for 26 years. It's morphed through the terms of seven governors, several government-appointed commissions, a raft of feasibility studies, and official field trips to Europe and Japan to ride high-speed trains. Since 1984, the State of Florida has spent more than $28 million studying it. Private industry has laid out $39 million.

Early on, proponents believed the entire system could be built with private capital. In 1986, the Florida High Speed Rail Commission (FHSRC), which the legislature created two years prior, requested proposals for a system built with private money linking Tampa, Orlando, and Miami. One company withdrew from the bid process because of the lack of public investment in the system. Gov. Lawton Chiles rejected a second company's bid in 1991 when it suggested that taxpayers should pay part of the cost.

In 1992, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) took over the idea, and the FHSRC was abolished. In 1995, FDOT announced that public money would be available. The state would set aside $70 million annually for 40 years, a total state contribution of $2.8 billion, for high-speed rail.

From five bids to build the system, FDOT chose the Florida Overland Express (FOX) Consortium, a group of transportation companies from France, Brazil, Canada, and Germany. FOX proposed a system connecting the three cities with trains traveling up to 200 mph. The company estimated the construction cost at $6.1 billion. FOX believed that 8.5 million passengers annually would use the system by 2010 and that it would be self-supporting.

Goodstein got wind of the FOX proposal when he read a newspaper article about it in 1996. Goodstein and his wife, Ellen, had just purchased a home on Sea Turtle Lane in the Shores of Boca Raton and begun settling into life as Florida retirees. One of the possible routes FOX considered for the track connecting Orlando to Miami would have brought the train within a quarter mile of Goodstein's development. "It was a typical NIMBY (not in my backyard) response," Goodstein explains, "I thought, 'What the hell! I'm just building here and they are going to build that thing just west of me?"

Goodstein contacted state Senator Klein, commissioner Aaronson, and Dean Borg, vice president a company that owned land FOX was eyeing. The four men met privately with FDOT and Fox officials to voice their concerns. FOX soon abandoned the property as a possible location for track. Goodstein's quiet neighborhood was safe. But by then, the four had become convinced that the bullet train would be a financial morass. "The problem was, we had gotten too involved in the whole damn thing and found information backing our intuition that this was a stupid idea," Goodstein recalls.

They formed DEBT in August 1997. The headquarters of the organization was (and still is) a spare bedroom in Goodstein's home where a white wicker chair is pulled up to a wicker table that holds a fax machine. He stores a collection of train-related documents in a spare bureau drawer. That is, unless he and his wife have visitors. Then he moves the reams of paper into the trunk of his car.

In the months that followed, Goodstein attended FDOT meetings on the plan. He was usually the only member of the public there. "It was just a dog-and-pony show," he says. After engineers, planners, and others who Goodstein says had a vested interest in high-speed rail spoke, Goodstein would address the commission. "I would make a presentation and say this was a ridiculous idea," he recalls. Hoping to win converts, Goodstein offered a copy of an April 1997, James Madison Institute evaluation of the FOX proposal prepared by Wendell Cox. "The proposed high-speed rail system is likely to be a financial disaster for Florida," the report stated "High-speed rail is likely to cost much more, carry fewer passengers, and expose the state to greater financial risk than is presently anticipated."

A United States General Accounting Office (GAO) report issued in January 1999 bolstered DEBT's case. The GAO concluded that FOX had overstated the likely number of riders by about 3 million and warned of a lack of solid information on price. The report also pointed out that, to get environmental permits, FOX would have to coordinate with 15 state and federal agencies because of the likely impact on wetlands, habitats of endangered and threatened species, and the region's water quality.

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