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Rethinking rail a good idea

Gov. Rick Scott has yet to make a final decision on whether the state will begin construction on new Florida railways, particularly the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail.

Though many Floridians are unhappy with Scott’s hesitation, citizens must step back and understand all of the possible negative implications of this project before dismissing the governor’s caution as foolish.

Scott has recently imposed a three-month freeze on any projects estimated to cost more than $1 million, buying himself some time before making a concrete decision on the rails.

Given the current economic instability of the state, Floridians are anxious to see the development of jobs and economic growth that proponents of the railways have promised will be created.

Rep. Hazel Rogers, a member of the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement that Scott’s hesitation might be detrimental to upcoming development in Florida.

“For every dollar spent in the transportation industry, Floridians receive roughly $6 in economic development,” she said. “Spending on transportation priorities is Florida’s road to recovery.”

Yet, despite opponents’ objections, Scott’s hesitation is largely justified with further analysis.

The Tampa-Orlando railway is expected to cost $2.7 billion, about 90 percent of that coming from federal funds. The rest will come from state funds.

Estimates put the state contribution at $280 million, but the project may end up costing taxpayers much more than that.

A study by Oxford professor Bengt Flyvbjerg found that similar rail systems usually cost 45 percent more than estimated. This research should be a warning to those trusting the $280 million estimate.

If that prediction holds true, Floridians may have to account for about $1.5 billion more than the original sum, if the private company eventually selected to run the rail line is unwilling to foot the bill. This highly inflated cost coming out of Florida taxpayers’ pockets is certainly grounds for hesitation.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, Scott is waiting for updated ridership studies before giving the go-ahead on the project.

Predictions for ridership seem a bit overshot and many are worried that these high ridership expectations will contribute to Florida’s miscalculations of high-speed rail costs and returns.

A study by the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization, notes that the predicted 2.4 million riders annually is two-thirds of the current ridership of the Amtrak Acela Express service, which provides trains to large metropolitan areas such as New York City, Boston and Philadelphia. When considering that the areas the Acela trains serve amount to a population eight times that of the Tampa-Orlando area, the success and necessity of this rail is certainly questionable.

Scott is not the only one who is wary of the project. Rep. John Mica has also expressed concern over asking for taxpayers’ money to fund the project at all.

According to the Times, Mica has strongly advocated that rail funding be pushed onto the backs of private investors.

Both Wisconsin and Ohio’s governors have already canceled similar high-speed rail projects due to comparable concerns over taxpayer money and high cost inflation.

Though the project does suggest economic development and the creation of jobs for Floridians, there are many factors to take into account before diving right in. Scott’s hesitation should not be prematurely scorned, for it may prove beneficial in the overall economic success of the state.

Tara Petzoldt is a sophomore majoring in mass communications.