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Opinion: High-speed rail is an investment, not a folly

(The following column by William C. Dunn appeared on the Tallahassee Democrat website on June 9.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher have launched a disinformation campaign to discredit and defeat the Florida high-speed rail project voted into our constitution in 2000. This month, e-mails and letters asked Florida taxpayers to make contributions and sign petitions reversing the amendment. I don't object to the repeal effort, but Bush, Gallagher and all of our elected officials have a moral and legal obligation to tell us the truth about this important issue. Specifically, here's how they got it wrong:

-- Bush and Gallagher say it will cost $500 million per year to finance high-speed rail service for Tampa-Orlando-Miami. The High Speed Rail Authority has requested $75 million per year for the Tampa-Orlando phase. The second phase, from Orlando to Miami, will cost about twice as much but it will produce eight times the riders and revenue, so state contributions for this phase will be small or may not be required at all. The Bush/Gallagher position on annual state subsidy is overstated by nearly 600 percent.

-- Bush and Gallagher say the total cost will be $17 billion. Bush has blocked the studies for the Orlando to Miami route so no one can be certain what it will cost, but a more honest estimate is $7 billion to $8 billion. The Bush and Gallagher position overstated by more than 100 percent.

-- Bush and Gallagher claim that high-speed rail is a luxury we can't afford and that it will bankrupt the state. The project will likely be funded from the existing gas tax. Gov. Bush has just signed a budget that includes a "gas tax holiday," which will cost $90 million in lost transportation revenue. Although this is greater than the $75 million that high-speed rail will need, Bush and Gallagher made no similar prediction about firing teachers, releasing inmates from state prisons or putting the state into bankruptcy as they did for high-speed rail.

For the typical Florida driver, the cost of high-speed rail amounts to about 50 cents per month out of the gas tax that they already pay. Drivers are now paying a $30 per month more for gas than they paid in December and getting nothing in return. By comparison, the cost of high-speed rail is quite small. The Bush and Gallagher position is a gross exaggeration.

-- Bush and Gallagher believe high-speed rail will serve only tourists. But every tourist that we get off the road is a blessing to all of us, tourist and citizen alike. The actual split between visitors and non-visitors using the system would be about 50/50. Between Orlando airport and Disney there are more visitors. For the rest of the system there are more non-visitors.

-- Bush and Gallagher predict that federal funding is not and will not be available. History shows that federal funding is always available for major transportation projects whether highway, airport, seaport or transit. The reason that we currently have no federal funding commitment is that it comes in the form of "matching funds" and the state has to make a commitment before the federal government will even think about funding a project. It is manipulative and disingenuous for Bush and Gallagher to claim that there will be no federal support.

-- Gallagher claims that "they" could attempt to impose a personal income tax in Florida to pay for high-speed rail. No one other than Florida voters could impose a state income tax and we Floridians do not want one.

The nine-member High Speed Rail Authority was appointed by the state's conservative Republican leadership. Bush, the Senate president and the speaker of the House appointed three members each. Now Bush and Gallagher would have the world believe that the authority is planning to take billions from our children's education, health care for seniors and other vital services to finance a frivolous folly.

In fact, the authority is willing to invest a small amount of money (less than 1 percent of the state transportation budget) to fund a statewide alternative mode of transportation that will benefit us now and become absolutely essential in future decades. The really good news is that all of the money that Florida invests in high-speed rail will be refunded from project income over the next 35 years. It is a wise investment.

(William C. Dunn, a member of the Florida High Speed Rail Authority until July, is a professional engineer whose involvement in high-speed rail began in the late 1980s as a senior vice president and director for Florida High Speed Rail Corporation. Contact him at Bill@SunCam.com.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

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