» Despite its capital costs being almost entirely covered by Washington and plenty of evidence that private investors want to move forward, project is off the tracks for now.
Just days after the White House revealed its ambitions for a $53 billion, six-year plan for an American high-speed rail network, the place where it was all supposed to begin now appears to be out of the running. Today, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) announced that he would refuse $2.4 billion in federal funds to build a rail line between Orlando and Tampa. The project’s construction would have required $280 million in state aid to be completed, but projections had indicated that the line would cover its own operating costs.
The Obama Administration has funded the project more than any other outside of California and hoped that the scheme, which would have opened in 2016 as the first line in a nationwide network, would serve as a model for the rest of the country. Numerous private corporations — including international conglomerates such as Siemens, Alstom, and JR East — have indicated that they would be willing to pick up the state’s tab and cover construction and operations risks, in exchange for the right to operate the trains.
Yet Mr. Scott has moved to squash the project nonetheless, acting before those companies were supposed to respond to the state high speed rail authority’s request for proposals. This is a shortsighted move that will only benefit others: The federal funding will be redistributed to projects in states such as California and Illinois.
Citing concerns that the project’s costs would spin out of control and that taxpayers would be burdened with operating subsidies, Mr. Scott argued that fiscal prudence gave him no choice. The Governor apparently has no trust in the private companies he claims to laud, failing to give them a chance to demonstrate their interest in the project. He apparently has no interest in offering his citizens the opportunity to pioneer a mode of transportation that has been repeatedly scuttled, in Florida and elsewhere, by the distinctively American ability to ignore the potential benefits of intercity rail.
Indeed, while the Governor’s decision may have been framed in a rhetoric of financial austerity, the hastiness of the announcement and its timing just after the unveiling of the President’s high-speed rail proposal indicates that intercity rail, more than ever, has become a tool for partisan disagreement. Republicans all over the country, inspired by the refusal of federal funds for rail systems by Governors in Ohio and Wisconsin, have rallied against almost every such project. The House GOP budget, which would gut the rail program — as well as transit capital projects — is only a continuation of this crusade.
What does this say about the state of American transportation? Is the status quo, in which the vast majority of Americans get around only by car for short to mid-range journeys, ramping up congestion and increasing environmental degradation, acceptable? Do we have any interest in developing a future vision for our cities or our society as a whole?
Image above: Florida High-Speed Rail route alignment, from Florida High-Speed Rail