YBOR CITY – Kimberly Pierce doesn’t mince words when she talks about the fate of the proposed high speed train that would have taken residents of Tampa to Orlando International Airport in less than an hour.
Her choice word: “debacle.”
“We have a lot of disheartened leaders,” Pierce said. But as the public policy coordinator for the Tampa Bay Partnership – an economic development organization that strongly supported the high speed rail project – Pierce hasn’t given up on it yet. That’s even though Gov. Rick Scott, who rejected the project earlier this year — thus killing it — has a different view.
“We still have a lot of people who think when it comes to high speed rail, the question isn’t if, but when,” Pierce said.
On Saturday, Pierce outlined the reasons why she thinks high speed rail may still have a future in Florida, despite the fact that federal funds set aside to pay for it through the federal stimulus package have now been sent to rail projects in California.
“We call it ‘Let’s get to work in California,’ “ Pierce said.
Pierce had been invited to talk about the bullet train during the Tampa Bay Mensa’s “HavAnArrr-Regional Gathering,” held at the Hampton Inn in Ybor City. Pierce made no effort to mask her great disappointment in losing this train, which would have run from Orlando to Tampa and then down to Miami.
“This was a proposal to connect the major corridors of the state with high speed rail, which is very prevalent in Europe,” she said. “The funding came to us through the stimulus, and the long story come short is that Gov. Rick Scott opted to kill the funding.”
The Obama administration had awarded Florida the federal funding in 2009, but killing the project was one of Scott’s first acts after becoming governor in January. The governor had questioned whether ridership would be strong enough to justify the price tag, and he claimed the long term maintenance costs left for Florida taxpayers to pick up would have been prohibitively expensive.
But Pierce disagreed, saying her agency had reviewed ridership studies done on high speed rail, and they were all positive and encouraging.
“In the case of high speed rail, there were a number of ridership studies that said it would be profitable,” Pierce said. She added that the governor’s decision was probably more political than financial.
“The problem with high speed rail in Florida,” Pierce said, “is our governor wanted to make an anti-Obama statement.”
And the most frustrating aspect of this, Pierce said, is how quickly the bullet train project could have been completed.
“We would have been the only system up and running before Obama’s second term was over,” Pierce said.
Rail transport, which dates back centuries, actually got its start in this country, Pierce said, as a joint effort between private businesses and the federal government.
“It’s interesting because it was led by private enterprise, but with a lot of public subsidies,” she said.
Rail also helped build cities that profited from the transporting of goods, services, and people, she added.
“Tampa Bay has a population that exists today because of rail,” she said. “We owe our existence to rail.”
But Florida’s top transportation problem today, she said, is a highway system geared entirely toward moving cars across a very large state – but with Florida’s solid growth rate in the past few decades, those highways have become increasingly congested.
“Our infrastructure in Florida is built to move cars, not pedestrians,” she said.
Chris Clement, a member of Mensa’s Tampa Bay chapter, agreed and said Interstate 4 could eventually become a selling point for high speed rail in the future as it gets more problematic to drive on.
“There’s always an accident on I-4,” Clement said.
That’s why high speed rail may still have a future, Pierce said.
“High speed rail is moving lots of people to big urban areas,” she said. “It’s competing with air travel. High speed rail is a dedicated highway – it doesn’t share lines with freight or anything else. Our system would have gotten you from Tampa to Orlando International Airport in under an hour. In China, where the technology is even more sophisticated, they would get you there in less than 30 minutes, but that’s a lot more expensive.”
But high speed rail is less costly, she said, then trying to widen Interstate 4 to accommodate more cars.
“The cost of widening I-4 from Orlando to Lakeland is more expensive than high speed rail,” she said. “And all the maintenance operation costs would be covered by private money. You can move more people than you can with people in a car only. In Florida, it’s a lot cheaper to build high speed rail because the land is flat. That’s not true in some other states.”
Pierce also believes Floridians will come around to the same conclusion as I-4 and other state roadways start to resemble parking lots during peak travel hours.
“Around the country, people have chosen to approve a sales tax for rail service, even if they don’t use rail,” she said. “If an extra 5,000 people a day are taking a tram or bus, you can get to work faster. The air quality is better, so your child doesn’t get asthma. There’s all these secondary benefits that are enough for a lot of people.”
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