Rails greased, but leadership has to step up

By Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

Published Friday, February 26, 2010

Didn't you hear? The first high-speed rail service linking St. Petersburg is up and running.

Too bad it's St. Petersburg, Russia.

Our own Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail project remains in its infancy with some early signs that it may never mature.

The goal is to avoid squandering the $1.25 billion federal grant — basically half the $2.6 billion originally sought by Florida — offered up last month in Tampa by President Barack Obama. It serves as a modest down payment on the Tampa-Orlando line.

The glass-half-full side of me sees a miraculous opportunity to bond Tampa Bay with Orlando via high-speed rail in a long-term relationship that can make Central Florida a cohesive region and a much more significant player in the 21st century global economy. It will require patience and commitment.

The glass-half-empty side of me sees early signs of bickering, naysaying, weak leadership and a threat of financial inadequacy amid a state budget deficit and stalled economy. These actions could thwart the high-speed rail line and undermine its potential with too few passengers, too high prices and too infrequent service. Add to that the lack, thus far, of sufficient light-rail service in the Tampa or Orlando metro areas to persuade enough people to forgo traveling by car.

Recently, I watched a 60 Minutes segment exploring why — after almost a decade of planning, phenomenal expense and national urgency to do something positive at the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan — there's still one big, ugly hole in the ground there. Bureaucracy had beaten down good intentions. I briefly feared that I was watching a preview of our own high-speed rail project.

I'm still a big believer in the potential of high-speed rail here. But this project will falter and dither without strong leaders, a formidable management team and far more buy-in from Floridians than exists today.

There are enormous numbers of questions still to be properly answered. Who will build this project? Who will run the line itself? What high-speed trains will run on it?

Where in between Tampa and Orlando will the line make stops (probably at Walt Disney World and perhaps the University of South Florida Polytechnic's new campus in Polk County)? And — this is a biggie — how will this line be marketed and who will ride it?

We have preliminary answers for some of those questions and simply wild guesses for others.

This week in Orlando, a two-day conference begins at the Hilton Orlando to explore how best to promote high-speed rail, not just between Tampa and Orlando but nationwide. Attendees will hear about best practices of well established high-speed rail systems around the globe, how to finance such expensive lines, and even how real estate values near rail stations are influenced. (More information at ushsr.com.)

Efforts to secure deals to build and operate high-speed rail here already are well under way. For example, among the Orlando conference sponsors is Japan's Central Japan Railway Co. The former state-owned firm — possibly in partnership with General Electric — believes the Tampa-Orlando line (and, ultimately, its extension to Miami) is one of the most promising sales targets for its platypus-billed "Shinkansen" bullet trains. That's because the route would be exclusively used by high-speed trains and not depend on running on existing tracks used by slower trains.

French and German bullet train companies are also gearing up to compete, which will likely spur protests that billions in federal and state funding will head overseas if Florida opts for foreign-made high-speed trains.

Bartow resident Ivan Richardson poses a good question: Who will ride the bullet train? Not tourists, he reasons, unless they rent cars at either end of the line. (That assumes, of course, light-rail systems fail to develop at each end of the line.) He writes: "The argument that visitors to Disney and the Orlando area who want go to Tampa or to the beaches would ride the train is hooey."

Another looming matter? How will cash-strapped Florida find the additional $1.35 billion — the difference between the $2.6 billion sought from the federal government and the $1.25 billion received — not to mention the rest of the money needed for this project? More federal money is possible in a second round of funding, but that is as clear as mud at the moment.

We need a sharp and empowered leader, a genuine face with clout, and a team to back him or her, to make the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail project make sense. Soon.

Otherwise, I am reminded of the Three Stooges skit in which the trio stands in front of a doorway, frozen, saying "After you" and "Oh, no, after you."

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.


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