A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 25, 2000
To endure a typical hour in traffic on I-4 or aboard a Florida commuter aircraft is to wish, along with Lakeland businessman C. C. Dockery, for the speed, convenience, comfort and safety of a high-speed rail network.
But wishing won't make it be. An unfortunate truth about passenger rail in the United States is that even when you build it, passengers don't necessarily come. And when they do, it's because of a hefty public subsidy. Neither Dockery nor anyone else knows how much money the Legislature would have to commit -- or at what cost to education, health care, highway projects and other current obligations -- to carry out the new duty that voters would impose by approving Amendment 1, Dockery's initiative, on Nov. 7. Construction estimates vary from $5.6-billion to nearly twice as much without St. Petersburg or Jacksonville as destinations.
The amendment is recklessly irresponsible. It gives the Legislature no choice but to begin construction by Nov. 1, 2003, on a system that would link "the five largest urban areas," as defined by the Legislature, with trains capable of 120 mph or more. That's less than three years to determine the technology, select the routes, prepare environmental impact statements and get them approved, condemn the land, and figure out what it would cost and how to pay for it. If it could be done so soon, which is highly unlikely, it would be at the price of great waste and hasty misjudgment.
Dockery dismisses these legitimate concerns and the threat to other state programs with speculation that the system could be built one section at a time, run by private companies and financed by bonds that would be paid off by projected passenger and franchise fees. That's a field of dreams. In the real world, the bond market would insist on detailed projections for the entire system, secured by public funds, before investing the first dollar. So would any potential railroad operating company.
The state constitution is no place to prescribe a public works project, let alone one so vastly problematic as this. It's a pity that Dockery spent $1.5-million of his own money to get it on the ballot, rather than on building a constructive, long-term constituency for rail, but if the voters let sympathy beguile them into approving Amendment 1, they will soon be feeling a lot sorrier for themselves.