Longform

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.

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman