What this state needs is high speed… rail that is

Florida is moving closer to the long awaited dream of many of its citizens to construct a high-speed rail system.

The Feds awarded the state $342 million last month in addition to $1.25 billion in federal stimulus funds and an $800 million grant from the Federal Rail Administration. The proposed project, with a speculated price tag of $2.6 billion, would connect Florida’s largest metropolitan areas in hopes the system would bolster the state’s ailing economy and improve overall transit for residents.

Indeed, if Gov. Rick Scott backs a decision by the state legislature to begin construction of high- speed rail or HSR for brevity, it could yield desirable economic growth and kill several of the state’s nuisance birds with a stone; at a speed not exceeding 120 mph. That is, if the project is done right…the first time.

 In 1976, a study on HSR feasibility was mandated by the state legislature. The maverick idea went into limbo for over 30 years while several additional studies were conducted and proposals brought forth to ensure the a HSR system was right for Florida. It wasn’t until 2000 that 53 percent of the state’s voters finally acted in favor of an amendment creating the Florida High Speed Rail Authority an entity of the Florida Department of Transportation. The vote also designated the construction of a system, which was to begin in 2003.

Unfortunately, the wishes of the electorate were thwarted that year as then-governor Jeb Bush vetoed funding for the system.

 State officials have flirted with the idea of a HSR for decades, but in 2011 the courtship of innovation and sound public policy may blossom into something more than a staple in EPCOT’s “Future World.”

Scott isn’t completely sold on the idea. Still, there is much for his administration to consider.

Basic economic principles teach us that the fluid movement of capital and labor resources is essential for a robust economy. If Scott is serious about a plan to create 700,000 jobs within seven years, then he need not look any further than HSR.

True, the initial construction of a system would create only thousands of jobs at best; paling in comparison to the 12 percent of the state’s unemployed workforce. But its long-term benefits will realize a viable state economy Scott touted in his inaugural address.

Florida is a large state and its major cities are separated by vast distance. Travel times between these areas exceed one hour via four main intrastate highways. Building a system that connects them would significantly reduce statewide travel times allowing for the rapid movement of human capital.

With HSR, an unemployed individual in Jacksonville could travel to a potential employer in Tampa in just over an hour, whereas before, the daily 196-mile commute wasn’t fathomable by car. The new commute can be equated to a drive from southern Dade County to the northern extends of Palm Beach County in the same area at peak traffic hours. For readers unfamiliar with this area, that’s a north-south distance of roughly 99 miles at a travel time of 1 hour and 42 minutes at its shortest distance.

In addition to reduced travel times, comprehensive HSR could offset increased traffic volume on the state’s existing transit infrastructure. This becomes even more crucial as Florida attracts even more residents.

HSR seems desirable on its face, but there are still kinks to be ironed out of the proposal before billions of taxpayer dollars are funneled into the project.

The most of obscure of these details is the exclusion of Jacksonville from the corridor proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The current plan connects Tampa to Orlando and will eventually connect the Miami area. And although Jacksonville will supposedly be connected to another interstate HSR system, no plans exist to connect it to Florida’s other large cities. This is clearly misguided and no further moves should be made on HSR until a plan is put in place to connect the state’s largest city, with its counterparts.

Opposers of HSR have expressed great concern over its long-term costs to taxpayers. However, privatization, travel incentives HSR users, and innovative design championed by the products of engineering programs at the state’s “world-class” universities, could ease this apprehension.

The better half of Florida’s citizens are anxious to see HSR pull out of the station. And according to Florida HSR’s website, service from Tampa to Orlando could begin in 2015, other factors notwithstanding.

Despite Scott’s skepticism on the plan, it shouldn’t be completely abandoned; but it shouldn’t be rushed into either. And if Floridians don’t see HSR until the beginning of next decade, at least we would have ensured that this innovative feat was done right the first time.