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How Florida Lost High Speed Rail

By Zulkar Khan - Driving across Florida is expensive. With gas prices rising, commuting is getting costlier each semester, and unless you’re game for the God-awful shuttle buses, you’re out of luck. But does it have to be this way? What if there was a cheaper, quicker way to travel?

Imagine high-speed bullet trains — like those in Japan or Europe — cruising from Tampa and Orlando to Fort Lauderdale and Miami. This idea came close to becoming reality. But then something happened.

. America’s first high-speed railroad was to be in Florida, ready by next year, whisking passengers for as low as $30 roundtrip from Orlando to Tampa. The federal government was ready to pay $2.4 billion out of the estimated $2.6 billion project cost.

With such huge benefits — rapid, futuristic transportation, reduced pollution and a boost in the economy with new jobs — how do we still not have this much-needed public service?

A month into his term as governor of Florida, Rick Scott canceled the project. After two extensions, the federal government got tired and doled out the $2 billion originally marked for Florida to 15 other states in 2011. Critics blamed partisan politics: As a believer in “small government,” Scott didn’t want bullet trains funded by the public, no matter the payback. This “small government” story seems far-fetched; politicians often use that line to justify their decisions but rarely believe in it.

It’s not about Democrats versus Republicans, since even Republican senators were outraged by the project’s cancellation. Rather, the mystery lies with the frustration of a few folks — small in number, but with significant wealth — who didn’t join the rest of the state’s delight of having an improved infrastructure. With every change and innovation, there is someone who stands to lose. Usually, we go ahead if the losers aren’t too many. That’s the rule of progress.

But what happens if the losers are extremely influential? That’s how Florida lost America’s first bullet trains. The road-based transportation industry had much to lose. But unlike other isolated groups, since petroleum and highway construction companies have deep pockets, their views — even if they’re harmful to the public-at-large — are taken seriously.

The governor’s transportation adviser at the time, Robert Poole, is a director of the Reason Foundation. The foundation receives funding from the billionaire Koch brothers and lobbies for “petroleum, asphalt and rubber-tire manufacturers” according to one Sun-Sentinel columnist. When the governor canceled the high-speed rail project, he cited a Reason Foundation study, which happened to be authored by a consultant for — surprise, surprise — the American Highway Users Alliance.

With the $100 million Scott plans to spend on his re-election campaign this year, there’s little chance the public will see the link between his corporate alliance and his decisions that hurt Florida amid the publicity craze. Contrast our situation with that of California. Both states have bald governors with two first names — really, their facial resemblance is uncanny — but at least Jerry Brown is supporting the public initiative to build a high-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Wouldn’t it be nice if politicians in Florida cared more for the public’s benefit than that of highway companies?