Leadership lacking on high-speed rail

Published Friday, October 9, 2009

Florida needs two things if it hopes to be included in the Obama administration's plans for a high-speed intercity rail network.

The first is a transportation vision that looks beyond the automobile, because the cost of gasoline and new roads will only make cars a more expensive option in the decades to come. Florida also needs to stop pitting one region of the state against another. This should not be a competition between South and Central Florida any more than it should be between bullet and commuter trains. Getting behind rail anywhere in Florida will help build a statewide network.

Florida is one of 40 states that applied for part of the $13 billion that the Obama administration plans to spend on high-speed rail over the next five years. The state wants $2.5 billion to build the first leg of a high-speed network between Tampa and Orlando. It also asked for money to explore extending the line from Orlando to Miami.

The federal stimulus money would give Florida the big chunk of cash necessary to get rail going. But Washington is rightly concerned about the state's history of false starts. Florida has no real vision for rail and no dedicated funding to support it. The Legislature has shown almost no interest in how rail can create jobs and redevelop communities. While state leaders came around after a slow start to support the high-speed bid, they have not shown a willingness to bring serious matching money to the table. Washington is looking for a strong partner, and what it doesn't find in Florida it can find elsewhere.

Orlando and Miami are also using the high-speed application to promote their own provincial interests. Orlando says the state's high-speed rail hopes hinge on the Legislature approving the SunRail commuter rail line for Central Florida. While those two lines would complement each other, their fates are not linked. SunRail has its own problems, chiefly the legal protections taxpayers would extend to freight carrier CSX, which would share SunRail's rail corridor. Miami has used the application to argue for dedicated funds for Tri-Rail, the three-county commuter line in South Florida. Both campaigns have only underscored Florida's weak commitment to rail and its risk as a potential partner.

State and local officials need to give Washington the confidence to invest in rail in Florida. They must create a funding base that makes rail systems possible. They must craft fair deals with private companies that do more than shift liabilities onto taxpayers. And they must realize that building in stages helps all Florida cities. Solving Tri-Rail's money problems does as much for South Florida and high-speed as it does for Orlando. And making SunRail a workable model helps the Tampa Bay area, which is looking to build a commuter rail system of its own.

The stimulus money could be a game-changer in how Florida recovers from its growth-fueled economy. Building rail serves the tourist industry while protecting the very natural resources that bring so many here. The high-speed bid should be economic development priority No. 1 — as should the realization that local communities have a common stake in how Florida develops.


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