The Train That Never Was

We were bound for glory. The hard work was completed. Environmental scoping had found the least disruptive route for a high-speed train from Miami to Orlando and then over to Tampa. We had branded the project FOX for the Florida Overland Express. A sleek red-tail in full stride was to be painted on the side of each power unit.

Nothing had been easy because the public was so indoctrinated to the notion that the only answer to congestion was more roads. Florida, though, was just about out of stretches of land to pave. I-95 could not be widened in Dade County. There was no remaining right-of-way and double decking costs even in the late 90s were estimated at about a billion dollars a mile.

A number of corporations came together to form the FOX consortium, which included GEC Alsthom, the manufacturers of France's famed TGV. The TGV has the world record for speed at 360 mph but was only going to run about 160 rolling between Miami and Tampa. Florida state legislators had agreed to a finance plan that included debt financing using bonds to be retired by system revenues and an annual contribution from the state of $70 million. The four partner companies of the FOX consortium were to provide equity funding of $350 million and the full cost of the system was expected to be $6.1 billion.

My job was to work with the media to make the public aware of the project and make certain a fair hearing was given to both sides of the discussion. We also conducted workshops and public hearings at the local level and, eventually, surveys indicated the overwhelming majority of taxpayers were willing to get out of their vehicles and get onboard the FOX.

Our work on the ground was successful but there was something in the air. And we knew we were in a fight. Legislation had been passed authorizing the construction and funding and needed only the signature of the governor. Lawton Chiles, who was not running for re-election, decided to leave the funding bill to be signed by the incoming governor, whoever won the election. Unfortunately, the winner of that campaign was Jeb Bush.

Bush's brother was the governor of Texas and was close with the executives of the state's home grown airline - Southwest. Herb Kelleher's planes had only recently entered the Florida market in the late 90s and succeeded very quickly at filling with passengers plying the same routes as the proposed Florida Overland Express. Big Brother Bush was gearing up to run for president while little brother Jeb was campaigning for governor of Florida. Southwest Airlines had lobbyists and the airline industry had money it was willing to invest in campaigns favorable to its issues.

FOX, of course, had lobbyists, too, and they had to turn back arguments that taxpayers were subsidizing the construction of a railroad for rich corporations and their shareholders. The notion that airports and air traffic control were paid for mostly with public money did not seem to gain any traction as blatant hypocrisy. How successful would airlines be if they had to build and operate their own airports and air traffic control systems?

The Bush boys chose the airlines' arguments and Jeb's first official act as governor of Florida was to veto the funding legislation for FOX. Too bad; the train that never was, if built on the projected schedule, would be carrying 8 million passengers this year, according to rider ship studies we conducted for the project.

The cost of a similar high speed route across Florida today is probably double the estimated price in year 2000 dollars. We keep spending our money and gas tax dollars on more roads to encourage more cars and we become skeptical when the trains run empty without acknowledging we've never built the rails to connect to enough destinations. The roads weren't crowded either until we built a network.

The billions President Obama has included in his budget for high-speed rail are a hopeful sign America is coming to its senses on technologically proficient train travel. We are far behind the rest of the civilized world regarding railroads and that is by political design.

Let's get off the road to ruin and jump the train to tomorrow.