January 23, 2021

Editor's Page

Right Time, Right Train

Mark R. Howard | 5/28/2019

In any event, Bush and Scott did us a favor by keeping the state of Florida out of the train business, clearing the way for what’s now happening with Brightline/Virgin.

Those who may still regret the course of events in Florida may well consider what’s going on — and not going on — with high-speed rail in California. In 2008, voters there approved a measure to borrow $9.9 billion to build a 520-mile high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco via a route through the state’s Central Valley. Total budget for the project was estimated at $33 billion, with the federal and state governments presumably picking up the balance. Target completion: 2022.

Everything that’s happened since then is a grim reminder of exactly what would have played out in Florida: The choice of “bullet-train” technology, which requires much more expensive infrastructure than Brightline/Virgin’s express-speed train. Route choices driven by politics rather than practicality. Escalating right-of-way and engineering costs. A proliferation of consultants. Missed deadlines. Local opposition, lawsuits, delays in construction contracts. Lack of accountability.

To be sure, Brightline/Virgin has also faced some local opposition and lawsuits, but those battles have played out in the legal arena between the train and obdurate communities without becoming fodder for statewide food fights in the Legislature. What’s the chance a government-run bullet train in Florida wouldn’t have had to build an unnecessary stop in sparsely populated Martin County, for example, if the Speaker of the House or president of the Florida Senate happened to be from the region at appropriations time?

The ostensible budget for California’s train now stands at between $77 billion and $98 billion, with completion not before 2033, if ever. In February, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to scale back the train, saying it would “cost too much, take too long.” Backlash from magical-thinking train advocates forced him to temper his honesty; what California seems likely to end up with, if anything, is a train that’s affordable, politically palatable — and useless, a 160-mile route between Merced and Bakersfield, communities that hardly qualify as the kind of major metros that high-speed rail is meant to link.

Brightline/Virgin — and Florida — seem to be getting it right. Something to consider for those whose definition of “progressive” starts and ends with government.

 

Read more in Florida Trend's June issue.

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Tags: Editor's column, Feature

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