Monday, March 28, 2011

CAHSRA to apply for $1.2 billion in rejected Florida funds

Via the Merced Sun-Star:

High-speed rail may come to Merced sooner than expected, as the California High Speed Rail Authority will announce today it's asking for $1.2 billion in funding that was rejected by Florida.

If the request is approved, it would mean the first phase of track will run from Merced to Bakersfield. Also, instead of building a station just in downtown Fresno, stations will be built in Merced and Bakersfield. The authority is also looking at building a station in Tulare County.

"This is very good news for Merced," said Mayor Bill Spriggs on Sunday afternoon. "The City Council has always supported high-speed rail. We were disappointed when the Corcoran-to-Borden route was announced."

"If we get a portion of Florida's money, we'll able to complete the entire backbone of the project," Jeff Barker, deputy director of the rail authority, told the Sun-Star Friday.

In December, after receiving federal money from canceled high-speed rail projects in Wisconsin and Ohio, the authority announced it was building the first leg from Shafter to Borden. That was quickly dubbed "the train to nowhere" by some critics and disappointed advocates.

The application deadline is April 4 for the $2.43 billion that Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott turned down. Barker said the state will provide a 30 percent match from state Proposition 1A funds that will bring the total to more than $1.7 billion.

"We already have $5.5 billion to start construction from Borden to Shafter," he said.
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, who wrote Proposition 1A, which voters approved in November 2008, said "It's not a question of whether were going to get the money, but how much."

The staff will make its recommendation to the authority's board Wednesday.

"With the extra money we think we can do one of two things," Barker said: Extend the track to south of Bakersfield to at least Te-hachapi or build the track 39 miles beyond the triangle at Chowchilla toward Los Banos and San Jose.Laying the "keel" of the high-speed rail in the Valley, Galgiani said, "gets us closer to getting private money on the table. It signals to the private investment community that we are serious."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

FL DOT: High speed rail would have been even more profitable than expected

High-speed rail is profitable, study says

TALLAHASSEE -- Three weeks after Gov. Rick Scott put the brakes on high-speed rail, the Florida Department of Transportation on Wednesday released a study showing the line connecting Tampa to Orlando would have had a $10.2 million operating surplus in 2015, its first year of operation.

The study showed the line would have had a $28.6 million surplus in its 10th year.
The numbers are more optimistic than a 2009 study, which concluded the line would have not seen an operating surplus until 2021.

The $1.3 million study, conducted by the forecasting firms Wilbur Smith Associates and Steer Davies Gleave, shows the line would have had 3.3 million riders in its first year. The previous analysis predicted the line would have had 2.4 million riders in 2015.

Scott, who last month cited concerns about operating losses due to low ridership when he decided to kill construction of the project by rejecting $2.4 billion in federal money, dismissed the ridership study results.

“I had been briefed on their ridership study and I looked at other ridership studies and I’m still very comfortable with the decision I made that I don’t want the taxpayers of the state on the hook for the cost overruns of building it, the operating costs or giving the money back if it’s shut down,” he said.

He said he made the decision based on a verbal review of the ridership study, as well as documents provided by the libertarian Reason Foundation and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Scott said he feared the 84-mile line would be a burden to Florida taxpayers, even though private vendors had indicated they would be willing to cover any operating losses or construction cost overruns, and federal officials said Florida would not have to repay the $2.4 billion if the project failed.

A spokeswoman for Scott said he doesn’t trust the studies.

“The governor has said all along he believes ridership projections for this and other rail projects are overestimated,” said spokeswoman Amy Graham. “Numerous studies support this conclusion.”

Wilbur Smith Associates, one of the companies that conducted the study, is a transportation and infrastructure consulting firm founded in 1952. It has 56 offices in eight countries, according to the company’s website.

Steer Davies Gleave has 16 offices worldwide, including locations in Boston and Denver according to its website.

The sunny numbers came way too late for rail proponents, who criticized Scott for turning down the money before all the information was available.

“Now we see more evidence that shows just how profitable high-speed rail would have been,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. “Private firms had been clamoring to bid on Florida’s high-speed rail initiative. Now, unfortunately, because of the governor’s rigid ideology, these private companies will look to other states. The jobs and economic benefits will follow.”

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, who unsuccessfully fought Scott’s decision in the state Supreme Court, said he doubts an earlier release of the ridership study would have made a difference to the governor.

“His conclusion was political, not based on economics, good business or even protecting the taxpayers,” Altman said. “As time passes and more information comes out, you can see the injustice that was done to the state of Florida.”

In the wake of the study, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is clinging to the idea that the line could be built.

“I still have a sliver of hope that common sense and the facts will prevail,” he said.

Others, though, want to just let the matter go.

“Frankly, it’s Day 2 of session,” said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. “That issue, unless the governor changes his mind or does something differently, is behind us. So we’ve got to move forward.”

A poll conducted by the Tampa Chamber of Commerce shows that 59 percent of Hillsborough County registered voters support a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando. The survey questioned 400 voters likely to participate in the November 2012 election between March 2 and 6 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is expected to announce by the end of the week which states will receive Florida’s money. According to an attorney for the governor, the state had already spent about $110 million on the project when Scott announced that he did not want to go forward with it.

Again, we can see that Rick Scott's decision to cancel the project was entirely political in nature rather than being founded in actual concern over cost overruns and state subsidies.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Florida High Speed Rail Funding Withdrawn

It looks like high speed rail in Florida is dead for the time being

About $2.4 billion in federal funds for a high-speed rail project in Florida will go elsewhere after the state's Republican governor rejected the deal out of hand, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Friday.

LaHood said the Obama administration was pulling the plug on the financing after speaking with Rick Scott, Florida's Tea Party-backed governor, Friday morning in a last-ditch attempt to win his approval.

The money, which many Floridians hoped would bring thousands of jobs to a state burdened with record-high unemployment, would now be spent in other parts of the country, LaHood said.

"I know that states across America are enthusiastic about receiving additional support to help bring America's high-speed rail network to life and deliver all its economic benefits to their citizens," LaHood said in a statement.

Under LaHood's offer, Washington would have paid for all but $300 million of the $2.7 billion high-speed line. The project was originally approved in late 2009 by former Governor Charlie Crist and by state lawmakers, who set aside funds to finance the state's share.

Scott rejected LaHood's offer at least three times, saying the state could not afford it and, if the line were built, taxpayers would be responsible for operating losses. The Tampa-Orlando line would be the first phase of a longer line to Miami at a cost of billions more.

"Put simply, the proposed high-speed rail line is far too uncertain and offers far too little long-term benefit for me to consider moving forward and ultimately putting taxpayers at risk during an already challenging fiscal climate," Scott had written in a Feb. 16 letter to LaHood.

All hope is not lost however. Given the bipartisan backlash against the rejection of the rail funds, it is almost certain that it will be a major issue during the next election and will probably serve as an important element of his downfall. While the program will now be delayed by a few years, there is nothing inherently preventing it from being funded again in the near future, and in the meantime, the money will most likely turn into valuable upgrades on the Northeast Corridor and in extending the California high speed rail system.