Two Consulting Firms Found Florida HSR Would Be Profitable
Florida Governor Rick Scott killed the state’s high speed rail project shortly after he became governor in early 2011. Even though the private sector consortium that was planning to build and operate the system pledged to cover cost overruns, Governor Scott preferred to listen to his right-wing allies in the Reason Foundation and killed the project, citing cost overruns as well as the possibility the project wouldn’t generate enough ridership to cover its costs.
Turns out he was lying about that too. The Tampa Tribune obtained a report from the Florida Department of Transportation that showed their initial HSR route from Tampa to Orlando would have generated enough ridership to produce annual profits in the $30 to $40 million range:
According to data from both consulting firms hired by the state, the project, which would have given Florida the nation’s first high-speed rail line, would have been a fiscally sound decision.
The firm of Steer, Davis, Gleave projected Tampa-Orlando ridership of 2.5 million and a $9.1 million deficit in 2016, the first year of operation. By 2026, though, the high-speed rail would be carrying nearly 5 million passengers a year and generate an annual surplus of $31.1 million, according to the firm.
The projection by Wilbur Smith Associates was even rosier. The firm estimated 3.6 million riders in 2016, producing a $17.6 million operating surplus. By 2026, Florida’s high-speed rail would carry more than 5 million riders and produce a $44.8 million surplus, according to its analysis.
The state used the information from the two consultants to come up with a midrange estimate: 3 million passengers and $4.3 million surplus in the first year, and a ridership of nearly 5 million and an annual surplus of $38 million by 2026.
Critics of Florida’s HSR system, like most critics of California’s proposal, rooted their concerns in a belief that nobody will ride it, especially when there’s (chronically traffic-choked) Interstate 4 as an alternative. But two independent assessments are pretty clear that those claims are not rooted in evidence. Florida HSR would have been as successful and profitable as the other HSR routes around the globe.
Governor Scott had to basically ignore this evidence when making his ideologically-driven decision to kill the project:
“The governor thoroughly explored all of the issues surrounding High-Speed Rail, especially ways to lessen the financial risk to Florida, but he ultimately reached the same conclusion that California is now reaching – that the concept just isn’t going to be able to pay for itself,” Scott’s communication director Brian Burgess said in an email.
When making his decision a year ago, Scott relied heavily on a January 2011 Reason Foundation policy brief, whose project director Robert Poole Jr. served on Scott’s gubernatorial transition team.
Using comparisons with overseas high-speed rail projects and one envisioned for California, the report by the libertarian group said it was likely the project would cost significantly more to build than estimated and that the state could be on the hook for significant operating subsidies for years.
In other words, that was bullshit. There was never any evidence for the Reason Foundation’s claims. The FDOT report, citing the two independent analyses, makes that very clear.
Still, it’s no surprise that a right-wing ideologue killed the project anyway. What is surprising and disturbing is that there are Democrats in the California legislature who are willing to ignore similar evidence showing California HSR will generate riders and profits and instead reach the same conclusion that a right-wing governor did.