Kelso: Stop high-speed spending on railroad

Local St. Augustine and St. Johns County news

Next to national health care, no liberal spending dream has persisted longer in the nation’s public policy than high-speed rail.

So, it is no surprise that it was prominent in President Obama’s State of the Union speech. Additionally, the Florida legislature in December 2009 during special session passed a resolution to quickly grab those “free” federal dollars.

High Speed Rail, which now is becoming nothing more than Commuter Rail, has a long history in Florida, dating back to 1982, when the governor established a development committee. Since then, no less than three times have Floridians voted against high speed rail — due to its excessive costs and questionable benefits. In 2004, voters repealed an initiative requiring the state to build a high-speed rail system, because voters didn’t want to foot the extravagant bill.

You would think this 30-year history of rejection would have sent a signal to the train lobby and our legislature, but the Obama spending revival has emboldened 200 lobbyists to convince our Florida legislator’s that voters are now ready to accept a down payment from Washington — with the “promise” of more federal money to follow. Our State Representatives passed legislation on December 9th 2009 in a vote of 84-25 in the House and our State Senate passed it 27-10.

Those legislators’s who dared to stand against such high-speed spending should be commended. Our local Representatives Proctor and Weinstein did not. We deserve better!

With passage of this legislation the following provisions were made available: a statewide coordination of the development and operation of passenger rail (this puts the state in the Railroad business), the creation of dedicated funding sources for the South Florida Tri-Rail (a new funding source for Tri-Rail), gave to the Florida Department of Transportation the authority to contractually indemnify freight rail operators from liability except in what is looked upon as “gross negligence”(puts the liability burden on the Tax Payer), and opens the way for the Central Florida commuter rail project known as SunRail.

To satisfy the union lobbyist, under the urging of Senate President Jeff Atwater, the Secretary of FDOT wrote a letter containing a commitment from the FDOT that signal work would be removed from the contract between the state and the rail operator and instead would be procured separately from a party defined as a “rail employer” under federal law. What this did was in effect promise that the job of signalmen would remain a unionized private-sector employee rather than non-unionized state employees. Why exactly does the state of Florida need to be involved in opening and operating a private sector business?

Under what new revelation would the taxpayers be willing to consider accepting this today? Why, the promise of jobs, of course! In fact, is so bold as to suggest that over a 20-year period — yes, a 20-year business forecast – that 113,065 construction jobs will be created as well as the development of 38,310 permanent jobs in a four-county area within a half-mile of the station stops.

Think of it! We are being asked to believe that SunRail could create as many jobs as Comcast employs nationally, or Verizon (65,000) and T-Mobile (36,000) combined employ nationally, or Amtrak — which employs only 19,000 across the U.S. and costs the American taxpayer $1 Billion per year — or Tri-Rail of South Florida, which costs the Florida taxpayer $40 Million a year to employ only 320 in its 70.9-mile run from Palm Beach to Miami. AS of 2006 the State of Florida employed 676,000 individuals while having a population of 18 Million.

If we look to Atlanta’s rail system we’d learn that our northern neighbor loses $534 million per year! Our own Tri-Rail in southern Florida costs us in excess of $40 million per year and it carries 4.3 million passengers per year. In Miami, for each $2 fare we subsidize the rider with $98 in taxpayer funds. Moreover, this burden doesn’t include the additional cost to the cities of southern Florida in the impact that these passengers impose on the busses of public transit.

The Florida Department of Transportation estimates the Tampa-Orlando project will cost $3.5 billion. By contrast, according to a 2009 GAO (Government Accountability Office) report, new high-speed rail projects in France, Spain, and Japan average $51 million per mile. Nevertheless, the cost of this new proposed high-speed rail is being downplayed — and in its place what we are really looking at creating is simply another government-subsidized commuter rail.

The private sector doesn’t want to invest because of uncertainty about costs and ridership.

Although the state projects ridership at between 1.9 and three million a year, as the GAO dryly notes, “systemic problems and incentive to be optimistic may exist” in forecasts of profitability based on ridership and operating costs.

Our new “Florida Rail Enterprise” amounts to the biggest tax increase in Florida history. It is Corporate Welfare in hyperdrive! This waste of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars needs to be stopped! Instead of this high-speed spending, we need to invest money into our local schools and into helping families struggling to find affordable housing. The list could go on and on.

Our legislators need to be spending their time getting rid of unnecessary regulations hindering the private-sector development of creating jobs. The private sector, not the government, is the only place where real jobs are created, where revenue is generated to buy homes, pay for services, fund the non-profit organizations that are best suited to help our communities, and to truly create tax revenue. We need to stop reckless high-speed spending and get back to common-sense government that serves the people.

Alan Kelso
St. Augustine, FL

Alan Kelso is a candidate for State Representative District 20.

Photo credit: © 2009 Historic City News contributed photograph

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