Saturday, March 12, 2011

The NY Times on the collapse of Florida's HSR

The Times has a nice piece about how the Tampa-Orlando high speed rail line was chosen and how it ultimately was cancelled. Here is a nice summary:
The story of the line’s rise and fall shows how it was ultimately undone by a tradeoff that was made when the route was first selected.

The Tampa-to-Orlando route had obvious drawbacks: It would have linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars, and that are so close that the new train would have been little faster than driving. But the Obama administration chose it anyway because it was seen as the line that could be built first. Florida had already done much of the planning, gotten many of the necessary permits and owned most of the land that would be needed.

In the end, though, the state’s new governor decided not to build it at all, worried that those very drawbacks would ultimately make it a boondoggle.

You can't separate politics from sound transportation planning.

The criticism that high speed rail is a "boondoggle" has to be retired. (Search "high speed rail boondoggle" to see what I mean.) It is a catch phrase and no one knows what it means anymore. Boondoggle doesn't reflect the nature of much of the criticism of HSR. Just as HSR supporters have reduced themselves to silliness by casting opponents as deniers (search "high speed rail deniers" to see what I mean here.). No one is a "denier" as everyone agrees we can build really fast trains. The problem with HSR is not one of engineering. It is of priorities. Most thoughtful opponents of high speed rail like trains, even like high speed rail, but worry about opportunity costs, displacing freight from rail to road, and most importantly wonder why we would build a new system that will cater to wealthy business travelers when we are cutting transit service in all cities and can't maintain the transport infrastructure we have. On a list of transportation spending priorities high speed rail is not near the top in terms of fairness, economic impact or environmental impact.

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