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Foggy Thinking in the Sunshine State

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, March 31, 2011

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- You'd think that a state knocked cold by the real-estate meltdown would invest in a future not based on housing bubbles. And that if the feds dangled a bag of money to help it address a serious economic drag -- a gridlocked highway system that turns off tourists, retirees and business travelers -- you'd think the state would grab it.

But this is Florida, where the recently elected Gov. Rick Scott has rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for a $2.7 billion high-speed train connecting Tampa and Orlando. Scott offers several reasons for this move, though not necessarily the real one.

The Republican insists that Florida taxpayers would have to subsidize the line's operations, even though a state-sponsored study says otherwise. He notes that Tampa-Orlando is a relatively short 84-mile trip, and because the train would make stops, the trip would take almost as long as driving. This is true, assuming Interstate 4 isn't clogged with traffic, which it often is. (Orlando ranks seventh in the country for the worst traffic.)

But the Tampa-Orlando run was to be just a first leg on a more ambitious bullet-train system. The bigger vision has trains turning right at Orlando and zooming down the crowded east coast to Miami. Tampa to Miami is 281 often tough road miles.

This piecemeal thinking is indeed problematic, says Rush Loving, a railroad expert and author of "The Man Who Loved Trains." "The real market for the Tampa-Orlando run would have been from the airport to Disney World," he told me. That's not why you build bullet trains. "But there is a market from the Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports to Disney World."

Consider my recent conversation with a helpful Thrifty car rental guy at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Do you wish to buy a SunPass for the toll roads? he asked.

No, I responded, I'll be driving on non-toll Interstate 95. Any other reason why I might need a SunPass?

Well, he said, many drivers headed south to Miami on I-95 encounter such congestion that they switch to Florida's Turnpike, which is a toll road. Florida has been getting rid of humans who make change, so you need a SunPass at unmanned exits.

OR you can go through the TOLL-BY-PLATE collection system, where a photo is taken of the license plate and a bill for that sum plus an administrative charge is sent to the rental company and added to your final tab.

Suppose I were a jet-lagged tourist from Poland (or Portland). I'd think: What on earth is he talking about? I could  visit the turnpike website and its "frequently asked questions," of which there are 26. One tells car renters who miss a toll, "Please contact the rental car company directly to report the missed toll and to learn their policy on toll violations." Is it now clear?

OK, so why didn't Scott lunge for money that could have launched America's first bullet train and employed a bunch of jobless Floridians? Politics.

Fast trains were to be President Obama's moon shot. Work on the Tampa-Orlando link was already so far along that it could have debuted in time for the 2012 election. The project is wildly popular in the independent-voter-rich I-4 corridor. Giving the people what they want might help Obama win Florida, so you can't do that.

Meanwhile, the California High-Speed Rail Authority meets this week to pick projects on which to spend the $2.4 billion that Florida turned down. Scott's snub of this grant wrapped in golden ribbons has angered Floridians of all political persuasions. Just wait until the bullet trains start streaking across California.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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