Florida Rejects HSR Money – Feds Should Focus on Northeast

As announced on numerous sites this morning, Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) has rejected $2.4B in federal HSR funding, canceling the proposed HSR line from Tampa to Orlando.  Scott’s move comes just weeks after the newly elected governor’s of Ohio and Wisconsin also rejected federal HSR fundings. And, of course, these governors are taking their cues from Chris Christie, who canceled the ARC Tunnel in October 2010.

Map of the now-canceled Tampa-Orlando HSR line. (Image from Florida High Speed Rail.)

Scott’s move comes on the same day that the US House of Representatives debated cuts for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2011. According to Transportation For America, House Republicans are recommending to rescind all HSR funding, including those funds released in FY10 that have not yet been spent – effectively canceling Obama’s existing HSR program.  Amtrak was spared, despite threats to cut funding last week.

Although Governor Scott claims fiscal austerity as his motivation, the timing of the cancelations suggests it was at least in part motivated by political rhetoric and posturing. In January, Florida’s Department of Transportation issued a Request For Qualification – an invitation to private companies to submit their proposals to build, finance, operate, and maintain the line. The details of this private-public partnership would have determine the fiscal feasibility for the line.  Numerous companies had already expressed their interest in building the line.

Now, Scott’s decision may be signaling to these investors that the US may not be ready for the private-sector’s commitment.  Siemens’ director of media relations, Michael Krampe, told the Tampa Bay Business Journal:

“We’re seeing that much of the country is still unsure about high-speed rail and its benefits,” Krampe wrote. “Public education and acceptance of high speed rail is important for us — whether or not we were able to bid on this particular project.”

In the northeast, the role of private partnerships remains unclear. In their Gateway Tunnel announcement, Amtrak re-iterated its desire to build and operate HSR in the northeast.

But as other states continue to pursue HSR, the Tampa-Orlando line was supposed to serve as a shining model. As Tanya Snyder noted on Streetsblog, America 2050 rated Florida’s HSR line as the most feasible, particularly since the right of way was already in public ownership. Despite their analysis, the Florida project had its flaws. In 2009, Yonah Freemark criticized the line’s eastern terminus for stopping short of Downtown Orlando. On the western end, the line wasn’t going to reach Tampa International Airport until Phase 2. As a result, Florida’s HSR was never a guaranteed success.

If we are looking for a proof-of-concept for HSR in the United States, the best place to start is in the Northeast.  Yes, the Northeast has the population densities, transit-rich cities, and clogged airspace that make HSR both operationally feasible and economically appealing. But, in the context of the current political bickering about transportation spending, the Northeast appears to be the region where most politicians and citizens want HSR.

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