A lot of consternation has been thrown out there about President Trump’s new budget proposals – one of the most damaging portions of the budget included the proposal to cut funding for most long-distance and money-losing routes of Amtrak. To this point Florida politicians have mostly been silent about the proposal which would cut all passenger rail connectivity from Florida to the rest of the nation. Last year nearly a 1,000,000 passengers used Amtrak to come, go and travel within the state of Florida. That number might sound like a lot but it isn’t. In 2015, three Florida airports, Miami, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood transited 20,000,000 passengers. Tampa International fell just short of that number. Countless smaller airports also transit over a 1,000,000 passengers in the state. When you consider that, Amtrak is just a drop in the bucket in terms of bringing people to and from the state.
I’ve long been an advocate for High-Speed Rail (HSR) within the state but unfortunately understand in this political climate it was long an uphill struggle. The state has been essentially under GOP one-party rule with Democrats who make deals with the governing party for political survival. Such was the case in the demise of HSR.
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 Jeb Bush and his somewhat unholy alliance with leading southeast Florida Democrats such as then State Senator Ron Klein (D- Boca Raton) and Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson (D-Delray Beach) disregarded the will of the voters who had passed HSR by constitutional amendment 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 former 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. Amtrak’s inter-city connections between southeast Florida, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville are too slow, too unreliable and generally useless as the passenger numbers show. Florida’s failure to develop an HSR system in the 2000’s ceded the advantage many forward-thinking Floridians had developed for our state.
With Amtrak bleeding cash, perhaps the time has come to let them double-down on Northeast Corridor where a shift from airplane shuttle service to the Acela HSR train has been successful. Amtrak can do even better if focused on shorter inter-city rail and high as well as higher speed lines. The development of the Acela Express train has been a net benefit for the US economy and the environment – business people move quicker up and down the Northeast Corridor than even in the low-security days of the Eastern Air Shuttle and the environmental damage is minimal by comparison to constant flights in and out of urban airports in Boston (Logan), New York (LaGuardia) and Washington (National) (For what it’s worth I believe NYC-LaGuardia and Washington-National airports should be closed permanently, as the damage to the cities they serve environmentally and potentially from a security standpoint are too great. But that would inconvenience too many powerful people to ever seriously be considered – the FAA’s remedy to slot control those airports is a half measure in my opinion.). Meanwhile here in Florida we can focus on developing our own rail system that serves needs of Florida’s citizens and businesses.
While it might be okay to let Amtrak’s Silver Star and Silver Meteor lines that run from New York to Miami wither on the vine the Auto Train is worth fighting to save. That line that runs from Sanford to the Washington DC area needs to be rallied around by Florida’s elected officials.
Florida’s state of transportation and ability to move people quickly around the state is yet another reason why the economy of our state hasn’t evolved as quickly as hopes despite all the big talk from Republican lawmakers. Like Governor Bush, Rick 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. But unlike Bush at least Scott, perhaps for reasons meant to benefit political cronies has allowed the development of All Aboard Florida’s Higher-Speed Rail (HrSR) system. It’s a half loaf but better than nothing and the opening of the Brightline HrSR system will potentially be the first non-Amtrak inter-city rail system in about 40 years anywhere in the nation.
Inter-city rail with Brightline will begin later this year between West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Unlike the commuter rail systems in Florida, TriRail and SunRail, Brightline will travel at higher speeds and unlike TriRail it will serve the city centers. Creating a culture of robust inter-city train travel that takes you to the heart of a city is something we lack in Florida – partly because our cities are mostly adolescent and have not developed in the traditional manner of cities in the western world.
Brightline isn’t the answer but it can start the ball rolling as the demand for similar service and a shift in culture should take hold in the state. Rather than depend on the federal government to fund a slow Amtrak service that doesn’t serve the citizens needs and does little to stimulate faith in rail travel, we can take control of our own destiny. The addition of Brightline’s limited initial service should be the start of a larger conversation – something the likes of Governor Scott doesn’t want to have but something we must discuss. The critical need to replace Amtrak in the state might prove the blessing, the stimulus needed to finally develop a world-class HSR or HrSR intra-city system that puts Florida on the cutting edge instead of behind the curve where we currently sit.