Michael Cooper Acknowledges the Obvious About Florida HSR

Michael Cooper in the NYT writes:

The Tampa-to-Orlando route had obvious drawbacks: It would have linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars, and that are so close that the new train would have been little faster than driving. But the Obama administration chose it anyway because it was seen as the line that could be built first. Florida had already done much of the planning, gotten many of the necessary permits and owned most of the land that would be needed.

In the end, though, the state’s new governor decided not to build it at all, worried that those very drawbacks would ultimately make it a boondoggle. [Emphasis added]

So yes, the federal government promised to pay $2.4 billion of the (estimated) $2.6 billion cost of building the new line. But to what end? The governor of Florida suspected, wisely in my view, that the operating costs of the project and the disruption it would cause were not worth the benefit. And that money can now be used for a variety of modest improvements to passenger rail lines elsewhere in the country, raising speeds at the margin or perhaps electrifying track and improving energy efficiency. Some have criticized Rick Scott for not taking what was essentially free money from federal taxpayers. It could be, however, that Gov. Scott had an inkling that Florida taxpayers are also federal taxpayers, and that his obligation as a public servant extend beyond the borders of his state, or rather beyond the interests of the various constituencies that would profit from the construction of the line. 

What on earth could have inspired the madness of proposing Tampa-to-Orlando HSR?

The demise of the Florida line is different, though. It will delay the country’s first bullet train ride by years, if not longer, and deprive the Obama administration of what it had hoped would be a showpiece that would sell the rest of the nation on high-speed rail.

That is, the proposal was envisioned as a glorified monorail, something akin to Detroit’s notorious People Mover. What’s not clear is how Tampa-to-Orlando HSR would sell the rest of a cash-strapped nation on HSR if it were little-used, and it if bled money year after year. A better strategy might have been to deploy $2.4 billion to encourage higher density and traffic-calming efforts in Sunbelt cities, to reduce the energy-intensity of various regional economies, reduce the number of motor vehicle deaths, improve public health, and facilitate mobility for less-affluent people. Instead we behaved as though there were no tradeoffs, and $2.4 billion for a Tampa-to-Orlando train was not completely silly. 

This article is the gift that keeps on giving:

To the Obama administration, the benefits seemed obvious. The money offered a chance to put people to work designing and building railroads. High-speed trains would lure riders who would otherwise drive or fly, reducing congestion, pollution and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. And simply building new futuristic trains zipping around at more than 150 miles an hour would be an accomplishment in itself, one that could lift the spirits of a recession-battered nation.

You can’t make this up, people. The operating assumptions about the appropriate role of the public sector are astonishing to behold. Then there is the following:

When the Obama administration chose Florida to get a large chunk of stimulus money to build the nation’s first high-speed rail line, some Republicans in Washington worried privately that the project might prove too popular. It was, after all, a multibillion-dollar federal project being lavished on Florida, an important swing state that President Obama had won in the last election, with the money focused squarely on the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando, the home of one of the most crucial blocs of independent voters in the state.

Any Republican privately worried that this project might prove “too popular” should be named and shamed. One has to assume that these Republicans express other private worries, e.g., that storks will come and fetch their babies, and toss them over the edge of our flat Earth. 

P.S. Gabriel adds:


Of course the most pressing of those opportunity costs was forgoing the opportunity to build a HSR line through the San Joaquin valley, so Florida’s loss is California’s gain!

Personally, I’m hoping it will be ready the next time I need to visit Stanford. That way I can take a two or three hour bus ride from LA across the grapevine to Bakersfield, take the HSR through a not particularly scenic part of the state, and transfer to a 90 minute bus ride in Fresno. (Probably at least 7 hours and $200 door-to-door). This will be a welcome change from the way I did it last time, which was to fly on Southwest and then take commuter rail from San Jose airport to Stanford (about 4 hours and $160, door-to-door).

As you can imagine, Palo Alto residents are thrilled about the prospect of a new HSR line carving through their picturesque, obscenely expensive town, which is to say that they will use every instrument at their disposal to (a) stop the line from ever making it to the South Bay or (b) force the line underground, raising the cost to even more stratospheric heights. 

I can hear the rejoinder in my head. “What kind of can-do spirit is that!” Wow, that’s a non sequitur. A “can-do spirit” behind building a megaproject that is flatly misconceived from the start doesn’t strike me as an obviously good thing. If we want to reduce the carbon-intensity of the California economy, we can (a) relax building restrictions in coastal areas, (b) invest all of that HSR money in facilitating the construction of ultrasafe small and medium-sized nuclear reactors, (c) create an incentive-based system to take the most polluting vehicles off the road, (d) improve public transit options in California’s big cities, and (e) perhaps increase freight rail capacity to take more trucks off the road. True HSR is, relative to competing uses of public dollars, a fetish object. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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