Dr. Strange Train

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

Cox says Florida's latest high-speed rail proposal rivals the selling of swampland during the 1920s. He points out that FHSRA's construction cost estimates are lower than the FOX Consortium's and that the authority projects more riders. FOX suggested the St. Petersburg-to-Orlando route would cost $3.1 billion for a 180-mph train compared to FHSRA's $2.4 billion. Cox believes the actual expense will be more like $4.6 billion. Riders? FOX estimated 1.6 million annually; FHSRA, 3.2 million; and Cox, 510,000.

"Their models are very wrong. They are way wrong," he says. "And the wrongness is on the financial end.... If the people of Florida want this thing, they ought to have it privately developed and have a private company guarantee everything in their projections. The people of Florida are being sold a bill of goods."

Cox points to other infrastructure projects to make his case that cost estimates are often woefully optimistic. There's the Los Angeles-Long Beach light-rail system. When authorities decided to proceed with it in 1981, the forecast price was $210 million. Instead, it cost nearly $900 million. Miami's Metrorail line cost 33 percent more to build the first 21 miles of track than originally projected, Cox notes. The total cost was $1.03 billion. Metrorail was also originally to be 54 miles long. And it was to transport 239,900 passengers daily by 1998. But by 2001, there were only 45,200. Boston's burying of its downtown interstate system into tunnels was projected to cost $4 billion but will actually cost around $14 billion, Cox says.

Fred Harper
Fred Harper

Unlike Paris or Tokyo, where high-speed rail has been successful, Central Florida does not have concentrated business districts, Cox notes. And there is no efficient mass-transit system to get commuters and business travelers to the train station. "You don't have a serious downtown in all of Central Florida," Cox says. "The fact is that employment is dispersed over thousands of square miles, and virtually all job growth in the metropolitan areas has been outside the core."

Furthermore, Cox questions whether high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando is necessary. By the time a potential bullet-train passenger drives to the train station, parks, and boards the train, Cox says, the time savings when compared to driving would be negligible. It would likely take 20 minutes just to buy a ticket and board. The fare would be around $30. Once the passenger arrives in Orlando, he or she would probably have to rent a car. More time. More money. "It doesn't make any sense at all," Cox says. Moreover, to be effective, bullet trains must compete with the airlines, not with automobiles. Currently, Tampa International Airport has only one daily flight to Orlando, a 119-seat passenger plane. "No one takes an airplane from Tampa to Orlando who isn't insane," Cox pronounces.

Because of likely cost overruns and the need for public subsidies to make the Tampa-Orlando line work, Cox believes the will to build a statewide system will falter. "The fact is, you are never going to have the money to deliver on the promise," Cox predicts. "When Mr. Dockery used his millions of dollars to buy the voters of Florida and they voted for this stupid thing, they did not anticipate they would get 90 miles of track, but that is what they are going to get."

On a recent evening, Jeff Winikoff addressed a large meeting of the West Boca Community Council gathered in Pete's Grand Ballroom next door to the Boca Grove development. The audience was mostly retirees from the gated communities of southwestern Palm Beach County -- liberal in persuasion, politically vocal, and dead-set against the bullet train. A lawyer who specializes in securities litigation, Winikoff is president of the council and a candidate for Group 31 circuit court judge.

"They are talking about spending $48 billion," Winikoff says emphatically. "I can't even get my mouth around that number: 48 b-i-l-l-i-o-n dollars. That's money that should be going to educate our kids, that should be going to prescription-drug programs for our seniors, for social welfare, for police protection, for whatever else is legitimate. Not for a train that is going to run through our neighborhoods at 100 and some odd miles an hour.... To service the Mouse. And that's all it's going to do."

Like Palm Beach County commissioners, who symbolically voted against the train last week, Winikoff understands that the momentum in Palm Beach County is against the train. Indeed, Goodstein believes that there's enough antitrain sentiment to gather 350,000 signatures in Palm Beach County alone.

But the numbers aren't there yet. At the West Boca Community Council meeting, Goodstein announced that 130 signatures had been gathered in Boca Lakes and 700 in Valencia Lakes. The community of Waterbury sent out a special mailing to its 274 homeowners, with the petition and a stamped return envelope enclosed. Overall, Goodstein has collected about 20,000 signatures on petitions since DEBT changed its wording in April.

Despite recent donations totaling $1500 from two community groups, DEBT needs a major infusion of cash to fund its antitrain initiative. Aaronson is seeking money from West Boca communities and Palm Beach County developers so that DEBT can hire students over the summer to stand at shopping malls and collect petitions. But if the campaign gathers significant steam, train backers like Central Florida's Dockery are likely to mount a media counterattack. "I don't think a train is coming [from the] opposite direction to wreck it," says Miami lawyer and lobbyist Ron Book. "They don't have a Dockery, and I don't think they have the deep-pockets funding either."

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