In the last few days, the conversation about High Speed Rail (HSR) and its potential future in the United States has reached a new level. After several months of discussion in the media and think tanks, two fellows at the Brookings Institution penned this outstanding editorial for Business Insider which summarized the findings of a study at the think tank. The culture of rail travel in other parts of the world, plus a need to grow economic engines and move people, the greatest commodity in the world around quickly has led many leading nations to invest heavily in High Speed Rail infrastructure. But why not the United States? Before we get to reliving the political machinations in Florida that led to HSR being scuttled for ideological and political reasons, let’s pose the question that the Brookings Institute authors have asked:
Against the backdrop of this new global high speed rail culture, why is the U.S. a notable outlier? Why is it that the only American train that can hit a maximum speed of at least 150 miles per hour (the Acela)—the conventional definition of high speed rail—can do so only on a tiny 10 minute stretch of track in Rhode Island? And why hasn’t the most basic feature of smart technology—the Positive Train Control system that would have prevented the recent Amtrak train crash outside Philadelphia—still not been installed?
How did the country that pioneered the universally admired Interstate highway system end up lagging so far behind so many countries? Especially when, in a 2010 poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans favored a major overhaul of the rail system and high-speed rail was favored over air travel among Democrats and Republicans alike?
One problem is the influence of lobbyists tied to either the automobile industry or various large airlines that have undermined the desire of our public officials to seek High Speed Rail. The Acela train in the Northeast is of HSR stock but because the rail lines are so antiquated that Amtrak is forced to use, it really isn’t a High Speed Rail. Here in Florida, the political leadership cost us the ability to build from scratch something the voters fifteen years ago saw the need to implement in our rapidly growing state – Florida like many developing countries that have invested in HSR has a highly transient and growing population.
Florida should have been the leader – beginning in the late 1980’s High Speed Rail was talked about as a potential driver for the state’s economy. Florida would once again be the national leader, the first to innovate much as the Askew/Graham years had pushed Florida to the forefront of progressive business-friendly reforms nationally.
Then Jeb Bush was elected and made it his mission to kill High Speed Rail even when voters of the state said otherwise by passing a constitutional amendment. Bush’s ideological zeal and his rumored interest in helping fellow-Texan Herb Kelleher’s Southwest Airlines whose intra-Florida flights were just becoming popular in the last 1990’s motivated his desire to kill High Speed Rail (HSR). Southwest’s intra-Texas and intra-California flights have now come under pressure from HSR projects in those states. But in Florida , Southwest has pulled almost 90% of its in-state flights since 2012 and no built-in replacement besides the automobile and prop/regional jet flights exists for Floridians.
While Bush’s personal agenda derailed HSR and thwarted the will of Florida’s voters, projects have gone forward in California and Texas. They have become the norm in the United Kingdom where all of England’s major cities will soon be linked by HSR. In England, fast trains just below HSR speeds have even been built to link major airports (like London’s Heathrow Express which runs from Heathrow Airport to Paddington Station in Central London) to the center of major cities. China has used HSR to spurn raid development and Chinese firms have aggressively bid to reduce the costs of new High Speed Rail projects in other countries and US states. In the near future we could very well see HSR in developing countries like Mexico and India. For all of these places HSR has been a boom to increased business, more tourism and a higher standard of living.
Yet at the very same time, Florida thanks to Republican Governors, parochially selfish Democratic elected officials in southeast Florida and a lack of forward and creative thinking has taken what could have been a trump card to attract business, high-wage jobs and an educated populace to the state and flushed it down the toilet. The efforts by Governor Bush and his somewhat unholy alliance with leading southeast Florida Democrats such as then State Senator Ron Klein (D- Delray Beach) and Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson disregarded the will of the voters and coughed up the advantage Florida would have developed over other states and competing foreign nations. The valiant efforts of the likes of CC Dockery and his wife State Senator Paul Dockery (R-Lakeland) were largely in vain and Bush won with the help of his Democratic allies. The loser has been the state of Florida, its citizens and business-people.
Florida’s state of transportation and ability to move people quickly around the state is yet another reason why Charlie Crist’s defeat last year was a tragedy for all the citizens and businesses of the state. Governor Rick Scott has dropped the ball on these issues, much as Jeb Bush did before him. Like Governor Bush, Scott has a clear ideological agenda and like Bush he did not grow up in this state so perhaps does not fully appreciate the challenges faced in terms of population growth and linking major growing metropolitan areas together. Or maybe like Bush he often simply puts politics above what is best for the state. Whatever the case, both Bush and Scott have cost Florida’s economy and people dearly. This is yet another case of it.
As the discussion about High Speed Rail evolves nationally, progressives and business people alike need to put pressure on state officials to act. Florida should have been the pioneer in this area but as always seems to be the case these days we are lagging behind other mega-states and business-oriented regions of the country. This has happened despite the continued rhetoric from Republican leaders about creating a business friendly environment in the state.