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Dr. Strange Train
Fred Harper

Dr. Strange Train

From deep in the land of the hanging chad, where a tabloid empire made tabloid-like headlines when anthrax was discovered in its Boca Raton headquarters, where terrorist cells have standing orders for submarine sandwiches, a voice cries. Not in the wilderness exactly. It cries in Palm Beach County, on the edge of the Everglades, in the lush, clipped lawns of southwestern suburbia, where cream-colored stucco homes with red, barrel-tile roofs are the überstyle, where the population is in some parts more than 98 percent white, where just about every community has a gatehouse to screen visitors, a cushy clubhouse, and a dazzling, crystalline-blue swimming pool. There on a Wednesday in early May, retired District of Columbia social studies teacher David Goodstein climbs into his gray 2000 Toyota Camry on his way to yet another community meeting to deliver a warning that has many permutations but can be boiled down to a single, poignant plea: "Watch out, Florida."

Goodstein is a tall, personable guy who has a coy charm he employs with friends and neighbors in West Boca. But he becomes single-minded and almost insufferably obsessive when focused on the object of his ire -- a $40 billion, taxpayer-funded boondoggle -- the bullet train. Goodstein has been fighting the project since 1996, when he first learned that sleek locomotives might one day slice through his tranquil West Boca world at 200 mph on a route between Miami and Central Florida.

Since that distressful epiphany, Goodstein has gathered reams of studies that report glowingly on the benefits of high-speed rail. He's also refined his arguments against it into scathing sound bites. To wit: "Why should I pay so that tourists in Miami can take a train to go see Mickey Mouse in Orlando and then take a train to take a cruise on Mickey Mouse's boat? We need so many other things in this state."

Yet that is precisely what tourists will be able to do if Florida moves forward with a constitutional mandate to connect its major cities (and a few not-so-major ones) by bullet train. And this time, at least, it's not big business, big government, or some con man hustling the citizenry. No, it is you and me and all the other Florida voters who amended the state constitution during the 2000 elections to require construction of a high-speed rail system that may one day crisscross the state with more than 950 miles of track.

Although the amendment doesn't define the source of money for the project, it does give the state a deadline. The bullet train must be under construction by November 2003. That's a mere two years from the date the measure passed to line up private and public investment and secure the necessary permits. Despite the plan's vagueness, 53 percent of the electorate voted for high-speed rail, about the same proportion (55 percent) that cast ballots in 1998 to elect Jeb Bush governor.

While conceding that the idea of a sleek train whipping through Florida is seductive to anyone who has suffered through afternoon gridlock on I-95, Goodstein believes voters made a terrible mistake. It won't relieve highway congestion. It's not suited to commuter use between, say, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. And it will cost twice as much as promoters project, Goodstein believes. "If you get private industry to build it with their money, it's one thing," Goodstein says. "If you are going to build it with our money, then it's another. We don't have it."

To justify his opposition to the train, Goodstein relies heavily on work written by transportation consultant Wendell Cox for the nonprofit, Tallahassee-based, conservative think tank the James Madison Institute. Goodstein finds it ironic that he, a liberal Democrat, agrees with conservatives on this issue. But both he and Cox hate wasting the public's cash. Cox projects that the project will cost $40.4 billion -- just $10 billion less than the $50.4 billion budget for the entire state that the legislature passed May 13. "It boggles the mind," Goodstein pronounces. "It will be like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking the money out of us."

As bullet-train plans hurtle toward the November 2003 deadline, Goodstein and a small band of compatriots and politicos in unincorporated West Boca have mounted a campaign to throw the brake. District 5 Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson; state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton; Palm Beach developer Dean Borg; and Goodstein are working through a political action committee, Derail the Bullet Train (DEBT), to persuade voters to pull the bullet-train amendment from the constitution.

Their crusade has had some success. Both the Palm Beach Post and the Sun-Sentinel recently published editorials supporting DEBT and decrying the bullet train. On March 15, the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization -- an 18-member board made up of five Palm Beach County Commissioners and elected officials from area municipal governments -- passed a resolution opposing a statewide high-speed rail system. And on May 21, Palm Beach County commissioners -- four Republicans and three Democrats -- unanimously voted against the train.

But all the news has not been so good for opponents. Though they hope to place an item on the November ballot revoking the high-speed rail amendment, that will be almost impossible. After they gathered about 50,000 of the necessary 488,722 signatures to bring the question to voters, the state attorney general's office advised them in early April that the petition's wording might not withstand Supreme Court review. They had to start all over. With just a month to go before the July 15 deadline, their war chest is a measly few thousand bucks.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

The other option to get the amendment on the ballot would be for state legislators to put it there. That seems unlikely. During the 2002 legislative session, Klein thought he had the support for a new referendum. But his bill died in the transportation committee without a hearing. And when he appealed to Governor Bush, who nixed the FOX train in 1999, he didn't get much help. Klein says that Bush has told him privately he still opposes the project. If the governor is in office after the November election, which is likely, Klein expects him to come out more strongly against the train. Bush said in his January letter to the Sun-Sentinel that he wants private companies to estimate costs and declare how much they would invest. If it looks like the system will "drain state coffers," Bush wrote, Florida voters should be asked to repeal the constitutional amendment.

The legislature is divided on high-speed rail, Book says. A great many lawmakers are reluctant to backpedal on something voters approved. The fence-sitters wonder about the feasibility of the system but are willing to wait for more detailed financial information and more complete ridership studies. Book predicts that at least the Orlando-to-Tampa section will be built. "I expected the bullet train to die a very quick death after [the referendum] passed," he says. "I was wrong. I think the more time that goes on and the more money that gets spent, the more the bullet train becomes an institutionalized idea. More people buy in, and more people get invested. They think, it is going to happen, so you better jump on board, because if you wait, everybody else will have the work."

This session, in fact, the legislature passed a bill expanding the powers of the FHSRA, giving it the ability to acquire right of way and negotiate on impact fees and providing a budget of $5.4 million to complete a ridership and other studies. Additionally, FHSRA garnered $3 million from the federal government. The money was secured by long-time bullet-train proponent Sen. Bob Graham.

Right now, DEBT doesn't have a lot of weapons in its arsenal. Goodstein says his group will press on for the needed signatures. If it misses the July 15 deadline, DEBT will try to have the needed signatures by the time the legislature meets next year. "It would be an important notice to the state legislature not to go spending a great deal of money on this," Goodstein says, "because you may find out when it is on the ballot in 2004 that the people don't want it."Back at the meeting, Winikoff hasn't given up trying to mobilize the opposition now. Addressing the leaders of the 110 community associations that make up the West Boca Community Council, he implores: "We need you to take those petitions to your communities. If you get out and roll up your sleeves, we can beat this thing." Meanwhile, Goodstein and Aaronson take turns ringing the warning bell: "I'm here to ask you to be leaders in the Herculean task that lays ahead," Aaronson says, "to put an initiative on the ballot to repeal the bullet train, which will be a disaster for the State of Florida and which will be a disaster for Palm Beach County and for all of you sitting here. We can't go much lower than 50th in education.

"If there was ever something you would call a no-brainer, this is it. You don't have to be a mental giant to see it."


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