You can thank Henry Flagler, not a constitutional amendment or federal stimulus dollars, for Florida’s best shot at a high-speed rail system.
Despite opposition, the All Aboard Florida project keeps chugging along with railroad and real estate construction in South Florida’s signature downtowns. Railroad grades are being redone; new signals and switches are being installed, and concrete is being poured for stations and affiliated commercial real estate.
“We see those things happening every day from West Palm Beach to Miami,” said All Aboard President Michael Reininger. “We are right where we’d thought we’d be.”
That means on target for a 2017 launch date — and those supporting Florida high-speed rail can thank the private sector, not government.
Here is a brief history.
Florida’s push to catch up to modern civilization on fast-speed passenger rail began in 2000 with the bullet train constitutional amendment. However, voters hit the bullet train reset button four years later with another constitutional amendment to void the first one.
Then, in 2010, along came President Barack Obama’s transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, with “free” money for high-speed rail projects, including $2.4 billion for a link from Tampa to Orlando. It really wasn’t free money, though, just more dollars added to the country’s national debt, now at $18 trillion and counting.
Gov. Rick Scott said no thanks, insisting the cost would be well above $3 billion. Two other governors, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich, who is still in the GOP presidential field, also rejected the federal giveaway.
Today, though, All Aboard Florida’s Miami-to-Orlando project, without the state constitution and without adding billions to the U.S. debt, is the only high-speed train with a chance to leave the station in Florida.
Privately funded All Aboard is using railroad infrastructure already in place — the same Flagler path that opened Florida to the world more than a century ago. It’s being funded by tax-exempt bonds All Aboard must sell to investors, not taxpayers, though opponents argue this much constitutes a subsidy.
“This is a transportation infrastructure project that started on third base,” said Reininger. “We’re the beneficiary of good fortune, in that history delivered to us the asset base that will allow us to build this.”
All Aboard still has major hurdles to surpass. It has to sell the aforementioned bonds, $1.75 billion worth, which Martin County is contesting. There are pending legal challenges and some pieces of Flagler’s railroad, now the Florida East Coast Railway, need work, including three pivotal but rickety bridges.
Here’s the thing: All Aboard’s cost is more than $3 billion.
Sounds to me like the government would have made a smarter investment by buying All Aboard’s bonds — and still have had dollars to spare — instead of proposing to put taxpayers on the hook for an entire high-speed line in Florida.