FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business

Right Time, Right Train

(Bob Croslin)

A few weeks ago, Florida Trend’s writers and editors visited South Florida, meeting with executives and economic development officials in Fort Lauderdale and touring the breathtaking explosion of development in downtown Miami.

A highlight was a trip on Brightline, the privately run rail line between West Palm and Miami (now rebranded as Virgin Trains after a deal with Richard Branson’s company). Impressive. The experience is pretty much everything the train’s operators crack it up to be. The cost was reasonable. The stations, brand new, are clean, well-maintained and secure. Brightline employees, many hired from neighborhoods around the stations, were polite, well-trained and helpful.

The train arrived and left on time. The train car itself was clean; the seats comfortable. The ride was fast and smooth: Unlike on Amtrak, leaving your seat for the restroom didn’t mean being heaved from side to side like a drunken sailor. Our seats — we upgraded to the middletier “Smartplus” ticket — included a snack and a beverage. The beer was welcome on the way back to Lauderdale after a long day in Miami.

Since our trip, Brightline/Virgin has announced positive trends in ridership numbers. Through March, it carried around 244,000 passengers, nearly half the total it carried in all of 2018. Brightline/Virgin also has secured funding — via what are called private activity bonds — to complete the 170-mile leg between West Palm and the Orlando area. The company is exploring three stops in Central Florida, including one near or on Disney property and another that will link with the SunRail commuter service. The Orlando leg will require three years to build. If all goes well, an additional leg to Tampa could be complete within a decade.

Whatever may happen beyond Miami-Tampa is too far on the horizon to anticipate, but it’s worth noting that Florida is well on its way to realizing the 20-plus-year-old dream of a modern, fast rail alternative connecting most of its major cities — without taxpayers having to finance a rail line and then subsidizing its operation.

It’s worth noting that the situation could be a whole lot messier if Jeb Bush, as governor in the early 2000s, hadn’t killed funding for a government-financed train and then worked to get the train removed from the state’s constitution after voters put it there. Likewise, Rick Scott, as governor, turned down $2 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail from the Obama administration in 2011.

Bush didn’t have anything against trains; for him, it was a core principle of fiscal prudence and responsible governance. Identifying Scott’s core principles is trickier — he said he believed ridership and revenue numbers were too optimistic and would leave the state on the financial hook.

Both governors showed courage in taking the stands they did. Bush took on a voter-approved constitutional amendment and a raft of economic development groups, engineers, consultants and other business interests quite eager for high-speed rail dollars they saw flowing from the federal trough. (So much for the simplistic view of GOP governors as unthinking, reflexive tools of development and business interests.)

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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