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Bullet Train Risk: Editorial from the Miami Herald

20 Jul 2009 12:51 PM | Jackson McQuigg (Administrator)

Bullet train risk

OUR OPINION: High-speed rail can be economic spark but only if done right

http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/editorials/story/1146859.html

It's tempting to jump on the bandwagon for a new high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami. Certainly, high-speed rail can serve as a catalyst for economic development.

It can also be an expensive boondoggle -- a train with few riders costing taxpayers billions.

A decade ago, this editorial board warned that the state should do everything in its power to ensure Florida wouldn't get stuck with a money-losing railroad, no matter how fast it ran. That proposal, which was supposed to be a private-public partnership, ended up derailed -- thanks to former Gov. Jeb Bush, who wisely concluded the bullet train entailed too much risk for Florida taxpayers.

Now the Florida Department of Transportation is looking for $2.5 billion in federal stimulus money to build the first leg of a high-speed rail system from Tampa to Orlando -- and a smaller portion of $30 million to begin work on an Orlando-Miami link that could cost more than $8 billion.

This new project isn't off the drawing board yet, but already it's estimated to cost $11 billion overall -- almost double what the fast train in 1999 was projected to cost. There are promises that private partners will be found to cover the costs of operation and maintenance.

All of this may work this time around -- but taxpayers should not be stuck with a project if ridership estimates are irrationally overzealous (as they were in 1999) -- or if the deal hits taxpayers for operations and maintenance. The decade-old rail deal began as a partnership that morphed into a taxpayer burden.

At a time when South Florida's TriRail service needs support as ridership climbs but public contributions are cut, this high-speed train raises alarm about the state's priorities. Yes, high-speed rail could be an exciting way for locals and tourists to travel quickly to major cities in the state. It's a smart call to have the Miami segment start at the Miami Intermodal Center near the airport, too.

Lots more planning needs to be done, though, to see if this new high-speed train proposal can add up to a win-win for Florida.

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