Carl Hiaasen: Florida taxpayers about to be railroaded

07/19/2014 7:00 PM

07/19/2014 10:25 PM

Here’s a really clever idea:

Let’s run express passenger trains 16 times round-trip every day between downtown Miami and the Orlando airport. That’s right, the airport.

Except the trains won’t go straight there, but will stop first in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, then head up the seaboard to Cocoa and hang a hard left 40 miles west across the middle of the state.

Oh, and the trip will take at least three hours one way.

Leaving aside the fact that you can inexpensively drive from downtown Miami to the Orlando airport in about the same time (or fly commercially in only 42 minutes), the project grandly known as All Aboard Florida raises other elementary questions.

Like, “Why?”

As it waddles down the tracks, this turkey enjoys the robust blessing of the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott, who said the following to a reporter last month:

“It’s all funding that will be provided by somebody other than the state. It’s a private company.”

Scott’s either clueless, or lying. All Aboard Florida is a future train-wreck for taxpayers. With the possible exception of the Hogwarts Express, passenger rail services almost always lose money and end up subsidized by government.

All Aboard Florida already has applied for $1.6 billion in federal loans, and plans to rent space at a new terminal at the Orlando International Airport for which state lawmakers recently appropriated $213 million.

That’s just the beginning. According to the Scripps/Tribune Capitol Bureau, the company also wants the state to pay $44 million to connect its lines with Tri-Rail, the daily commuter link serving South Florida.

Only three short years ago, playing the tea party scrooge, Scott killed a proposed high-speed train project between Orlando and Tampa. In rejecting about $2 billion in federal funds, the governor asserted that Florida taxpayers would have ended up paying to operate the rail service once it was finished. He was right.

Now he’s yodeling a different tune, perhaps because his latest chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, formerly worked for one of the companies connected to All Aboard Florida. (When a reporter asked Scott if he’d talked to Hollingsworth about the project, he didn’t answer.)

Meanwhile, all along the proposed route, opposition is erupting. Here was the front-page headline in the July 13 Indian River Press Journal: ALL AGAINST ALL ABOARD.

Officials in Stuart, Fort Pierce, Vero Beach and other communities are rightly worried about the impact of adding 32 trains every day on the Florida East Coast tracks that All Aboard Florida plans to use.

The frequent stoppage of traffic at rail crossings is a major concern, especially because it will impede police, firefighters and other emergency responders. For residents and businesses near the track, the train noise and vibrations will be a recurring headache.

Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari believes it could hurt local property values. And where the trains will cross busy waterways like the St. Lucie River, many say the repeated lowering of the railroad bridges will restrict boat travel and hurt the marine trades.

All Aboard Florida insists that its trains will be moving so fast that boaters and motorists won’t be inconvenienced for long periods, and it has promised to upgrade the road crossings to make them safer.

Few of the many critics seem reassured. Municipalities and counties fear they’ll be stuck with funding new infrastructure, just for the privilege of watching shiny locomotives whiz past all day long.

The whole project is anchored on the dubious notion that millions of people can’t wait to hop a train from Miami to the Orlando airport (via Cocoa). Although All Aboard Florida has sued to keep secret its ridership surveys, its web site sunnily predicts that three out of four passengers will be tourists.

Tourists who are what . . . afraid to fly? Too scared to drive?

Talk about a narrow market.

And while it’s always beneficial to reduce the number of cars on the highway, this particular experiment can’t possibly break even. The only money will be made in the beginning with real-estate deals, by well-connected contractors working on new stations, modernizing the rails and laying 40 miles of fresh track between Brevard County and the land of Disney.

At this point, the momentum for All Aboard is all political, and only the rising outcry can derail it. Scott, who’s up for reelection, recently asked the Federal Railroad Administration to extend to 75 days the public-comment period that will follow the agency’s upcoming environmental impact study.

If the trains ever start running, spewing red ink with every toot of their horns, don’t be surprised if the state steps in to bail out the project, or asks the feds to do it.

Either way, we’ll get stung with the bill somewhere down the line.

All aboard, suckers.

About Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen

@CarlHiaasen

Carl Hiaasen joined the Herald in 1976 and worked as a general assignment reporter, magazine writer and investigative reporter before starting his column in 1985.

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