High-Speed Myopia

By Bill Moore

Posted: 16 Feb 2011

Florida's newly elected Republican governor, Rick Scott announced today that he too is refusing federal funds to build a high speed rail system in his state, one that in Phase 1 would link Tampa with Orlando, with stops in Lakeland, Disney World and the Orlando convention center. The reasons he gave had to do with the cost of the system and fears of a lack of passengers to pay for it. The Govenor's office issued a press statement that feared capital cost overruns and inflated ridership projections, stating…

It is projected that 3.07 million people will use the train annually.  Keep in mind that Amtrak's Acela train in Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore only had 3.2 million riders in 2010.  And that market's population is 8 times the size of the Tampa/Orlando market.

Scott is the third Republican governor to reject federal funds for high speed rail projects in their states: also rejecting the funds are John Kasich of Ohio and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. The reason the Florida governor gave in a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was that he wanted to spend the money on the state's highways and on dredging harbors for larger cargo vessels.

In response, the US High Speed Rail Association issued its own statement calling the governor's decision "unfortunate" and "premature."

Premature? What did they mean by that, I wondered, so I sent them an email and less than a hour later, Andy Kunz the association president called me back, the emotion palpable in his voice.

"What's with these guys," I asked? The question was like setting off a keg of gunpowder, especially since the Tampa-Orlando route was to be the starting point for the first true high-speed rail system in America.

Kunz explained that all of the governor's objections have already been answered. For example the contention that there won't enough passengers between the two metro areas given their combined populations ignores the fact that 50 million tourists visit the region annually, many of them from countries that already enjoy high-speed rail systems from their major airports.

As for the issue of cost overruns, there are some eight international consortiums from Europe and Asia vying for the contract to design and run the system for 30 years. Kunz says that all have guaranteed to cover all cost overruns; besides the federal government is ready to provide 90% of the funding for the project, much of the money coming from funds that Ohio and Wisconsin's governors turned down.

According to Kunz, Governor Scott pledged that he would conduct his own ridership study and not make any decisions until that study was completed, a promise he reneged on today since the study was never completed.

Why would these three governor's turn up their noses to projects that would bring jobs to their states and help America get up to speed with its antiquated passenger rail system? Kunz has his strong suspicions: the billionaire Koch brothers.

"Have your read the New Yorker article about them," he asked me? I hadn't but I am aware of their funding groups whose mission is to help thwart any policies or regulations that would impact their personal fortunes. Jane Mayer's New Yorker article is subtitled, "The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama."

Kunz finds it's no coincidence that three of the leading libertarian think tanks (as well as some 50 other organizations the Kochs are said to fund), the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation and Heritage Foundation, have come out opposing high-speed rail, citing each others "studies" as proof that the concept is a bad one.

"It's incestuous," fumes Kunz. "They have attacked light rail, street cars, California's high speed rail project." In his view, the Kochs, who make their money selling fossil fuels -- among other things, have an agenda to kill passenger rail or any other program that conflicts with their libertarian views, including the reality of climate change. Writes Mayer's in the New Yorker…

In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.
The Kochs -- who are sizable donors to various arts and philanthropic organizations -- apparently are happy with the status quo of people burning the gasoline they refine in the cars that crawl up and down the Interstate between Orlando and Tampa. Having them take trains instead is an idea that needs to be nipped in the bud, it appears.

Filling his own car's tank with Koch or anybody else's petroleum is not an issue for Andy Kunz. He doesn't own a car, he told me. Instead, for the last three years, he's ridden an electric bicycle all around DC and adjacent Alexandria, Virginia where he lives. He takes his EZ Cadence e-bike on the DC Metro and then pedals to where he needs to go. He told me he even does his grocery shopping on it.

Now that's pedaling the talk!

So, is this the end of the Florida high speed rail project, I asked?

Kunz says it isn't. The rail line would run down the middle of Interstate 4, right-of-way that is owned by the federal government. Discussions began today, he confided, to look at an option that would let the federal government build the system, since 90% of the money is federal dollars anyway. He also told me that all eight of the consortiums are prepared to take on full financial responsibility for project and run it for the next 30 years. They are that confident of their construction cost numbers and ridership projections.

So, it would appear this fight isn't over yet; in fact, it may just be beginning.

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