Dr. Strange Train

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

When Jeb Bush was elected governor in November 1998, he killed the FOX train. In a letter to the Sun-Sentinel dated January 18, 2002, Bush explained that he made the decision because of "overly optimistic ridership estimates, a financial plan that obligated taxpayers to billions of dollars in debt repayment, and questions about the level of required federal support." He also said the proposal raised questions about "environmental impacts, the degree of congestion relief, and the economic development benefits when compared to other transportation investments."

But like a bad penny, the bullet train just wouldn't go away.

Fred Harper
Fred Harper

After Bush's decision, Goodstein, Aaronson, Klein, and Borg turned away from high-speed rail to concentrate on the 2000 elections. And while they weren't looking, the bullet train rumbled back to life.

Lakeland millionaire C.C. "Doc" Dockery, who had been a member of the FHSRC, still believed passionately in the idea, so much so that he spent $3 million of his own money to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2000 ballot to require the state to build a bullet train. Dockery hired a firm to collect signatures for a referendum and got the necessary amount. Thirty days before the November 7 election, he launched an advertising blitz to promote the bullet train.

Thirty-six Florida counties voted for it. The support was particularly concentrated in Central Florida along the I-4 corridor from Tampa to Orlando, an area that includes Dockery's hometown. In South Florida, Palm Beach County voted against it. Broward and Miami-Dade voted for it, as did other counties along the East Coast corridor to Jacksonville. "David Goodstein and I were caught asleep at the switch," Aaronson says.

The battle over the bullet train then moved to the Florida Legislature. Again, Dockery had influence. He contributed more than $62,000 to the Republican Party between 1996 and 1998. His wife, Paula, is a Republican state representative who serves on the House Committee on Transportation. The Dockerys helped Sen. John Laurent, a Republican from Bartow, gain office in 1998 with $3600 in campaign contributions. Laurent, a bullet-train advocate, now serves on the Senate Committee on Transportation.

During the 2001 session, after a bitter fight, the legislature created yet another commission, the Florida High Speed Rail Authority; gave it $4.5 million; and told it to return the following session with a report. FHSRA was assigned to concentrate on the first leg of the line, from St. Petersburg to Orlando, with a stop in Lakeland. Doc Dockery was again appointed to serve.

To Goodstein, the directive to start in Central Florida is pure politics. "The route they are planning to do [first] is the least economically feasible according to the FOX report!" he exclaims. According to FOX estimates, 85 percent of passengers would come from the Miami-to-Orlando route and only 15 percent would ride the Tampa-to-Orlando line. "It just doesn't make sense," Goodstein complains, "to build a railroad for a trip that's 100 miles long."

In January 2002, FHSRA delivered its report to the legislature. The authority envisions a system that would connect the state with lines traveling to Pensacola, Jacksonville, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, and Miami. For the Tampa-to-Orlando segment, the authority estimates the cost at $1.7 billion. To connect St. Petersburg to Orlando, which would require crossing Tampa Bay, $1.8 billion to $2.4 billion would be required.

The authority hopes that federal grants and bonds will pay the majority of the capital costs, according to William Dunn, an FHSRA member who was project manager of one of the bids rejected in 1991. The state will also contribute, as well as the company that builds and operates the system.

The FHSRA believes that 3.5 million riders will take the train annually from Tampa to Orlando by 2010. Like previous optimistic reports on high-speed rail, the Authority's dossier suggests that rider revenues will cover operating expenses. One conundrum that the authority must sort through, Dunn says, is that ridership will likely be higher if the train moves at high speeds. But fast trains cost more.

Dunn is convinced of the importance of high-speed rail in Florida. He expects that the bullet train will help stop the flight of residents from Miami to other counties. And that it will relieve highway congestion. "I have no doubt at all that the benefits will far outweigh the costs," Dunn says. "Unfortunately, the benefits are not something you can tap into to build the train. But if you want to get somewhere quickly and comfortably, this would be a first-class ride."

Wendell Cox has built an international reputation as an outspoken critic of government spending on mass transit. The 57-year-old consultant is a favorite of conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation and of groups who earn their living from the U.S. obsession with the automobile. "The nation's leading debunker of the nonsense that Americans are going to get out of their automobiles and ride trolleys," the Toll Roads Newsletter, a bimonthly trade publication, recently said of Cox.

Cox's academic background is in political science and business administration, but he zeroed in on public transit in the 1970s, when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the L.A. County Transportation Commission. He started out as an advocate, then turned into a formidable enemy. Cox now makes his living speaking about and consulting on mass-transit projects. In a brochure, he advertises some of the subjects he will address for a $2500 speakers fee: "How Government Kills the American Dream," "The Madness of Mass Transit," and "A World of Blunders." Cox has consulted on transportation projects in 49 states, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Australia, Europe, and Africa. He currently serves on the Amtrak Reform Council.

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