In The Public Interest : Gas Prices Show Cutting High Speed Rail Is Short-Sighted

Last Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott officially drove the nail in the coffin of the proposed high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando. The decision to reject $2.4 billion in federal funds for the line was, according to Scott, all about the money - specifically, the desire to protect Floridians from what he believed would be inevitable cost overruns and operating subsidies for the train.

Just how big those overruns would be, or whether they would exist at all, is a point of some contention. Scott relied on the ideologically driven Reason Institute's estimate of a potential $3 billion cost overrun in rejecting the high-speed rail line. His claim that the train would require ongoing taxpayer support once it began running, meanwhile, conflicts with an independent study released Wednesday by the Florida Department of Transportation which concluded that, far from needing a subsidy, the Tampa-to-Orlando line would have produced operating surpluses as large as $29 million per year within a decade.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that Scott is right and Floridians do end up on the hook for $3 billion in the process of building a state-of-the-art high-speed rail system. What does that really mean?

One way to understand it is to consider that Floridians drive more than 190 billion miles every year -- an average of roughly 10,500 miles per person. That amount of driving requires roughly 8.5 billion gallons of gasoline. That means that every time gas prices rise 35 cents, Floridians pay out an extra $3 billion annually for gas -- the same as the high-end estimate Governor Scott gave for cost overruns from the rail project.

As it turns out, last week gas prices rose by 19 cents -- the second largest 1-week increase since 1990. And since Valentine's Day, gas prices have increased by more than 40 cents. In other words, if gas prices remain at their current levels, Floridians will face a $3 billion hit to their pocketbooks this year -- only instead of that money going toward the construction of clean, cutting-edge transportation that creates jobs and boosts the Florida economy, it will instead find its way into the pockets of multinational oil companies and the coffers of countries from Saudi Arabia to Venezuela.

Rick Scott isn't the only governor making shortsighted decisions about high speed rail. When Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker rejected funding for high speed rail in his state, he cited the expected $8 million annual operating subsidy as the reason for his cancellation. Wisconsinites drove 58 billion miles in 2009, consuming about 2.5 billion gallons of gas in the process. That means that over the course of a year, Wisconsinites pay out an extra $8 million dollars if the price of gas rises 0.3 cents.

At times of fiscal distress, it's fully appropriate for public officials to be careful about the expenditure of public funds. But it is important to remember that inaction is a form of action, and that by failing to invest in transportation alternatives like high-speed rail, we are consigning Americans to further dependence on fossil fuels -- and further exposure to oil price spikes like the ones this winter.

High speed rail makes sense. By refusing to invest in it when they have the chance, Governors Scott and Walker are keeping their states at the mercy of gas prices. If the governors really want to look out for the financial best interests of their constituents, it's time to stop making penny-wise, pound-foolish choices, and make the critical investments that will pay off for their states over the long term.

Click here to watch a humorous video that U.S. PIRG produced with the website Funny or Die featuring two actors from the television show Mad Men in support of high- speed rail.