With railway’s benefits so great, don’t get left at the station
Written by Michael Lewis on July 30, 2014
A plan for privately-built fast passenger rail linking Miami and Orlando offers such great benefits here that you’d think it would be all aboard with All Aboard Florida.
Imagine cashing in on Disney visitors who’d like to spend time in Miami too. The station complex would revitalize downtown’s neglected west side. Trips to Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando would become easier and less costly. Downtown residents who aim to live without cars could get around the state. And the environment would benefit with one train instead of hundreds of cars on the highway.
It’s a no-brainer – unless you’re the Miami Herald columnist whose opinion of the rail line last week concluded “All aboard, suckers.” That summation is so far off track that it could poison opinion against a project that would pump money and visitors into our community while improving our lives.
While All Aboard Florida faces a lot more stops en route to operation – and we realize that the devil lurks in the details – the concept itself is sound as a pre-recession dollar.
Yet Carl Hiaasen told his readers that few would ride a train that takes three hours to get to Orlando because they could drive in the same time or fly commercially in 42 minutes, so why get on a train at all unless you’re afraid to fly or too scared to drive.
Well, there are very good reasons.
In order to fly, you take a taxi to the airport or drive there and park, either of which takes time. You should arrive an hour early. Then you get the pleasure of walking through airport security and a lengthy concourse to your gate. Then you fly 60 to 70 minutes, according to schedules, not 42 minutes. With luck, flying won’t take much longer than the train.
And you’ll pay $263 to $403 for the cheapest round-trip air tickets for sale one random day, after also paying for parking or a cab. Of course, you’ll have to buy air tickets in advance, with only nine flights daily rather than a planned 16 rail trips each way.
Train travel should be cheaper and at least as fast.
Driving seems better, but at 60 miles an hour the 235-mile drive would be an hour slower than a train, plus rest, gas or food stops. On a train you eat in comfort and make rest stops as you roll on. And many visitors, especially Europeans, are more accustomed to a train ride in comfort than fiddling with roadmaps on the highway.
Moreover, unless you have a carload of people, driving costs might be higher than rail. Depending on car size, at the 60 cents a mile that AAA figures it costs to drive, the round trip by car is $282, plus about $40 for tolls. Tourists could rent a car, then pay tolls and gas, but might spend as much as rail at less convenience.
So, the people who might pick a train are those who want to save time, save money, like comfort and convenience, are accustomed to trains or find them novel, or want to see Florida rather than toll roads or clouds en route.
That, in a fast-growing state like Florida that lives on tourists, seems like enough folks to build a business around, and enough reason to support the coming for the second time of the railroad to Miami.
But even when a bonanza falls into our laps, someone cries foul. Here’s a county where every official is trying to get more rail links at government expense, and when a developer comes in to build at private cost a columnist worries that government funds might get involved.
Of course government would be involved. Officials are already vetting plans for the All Aboard Florida downtown station complex. When officials meet and plan, it costs money.
And, yes, the railroad wants to borrow $1.6 billion – not a grant, but a federal loan to be repaid. Bear in mind that the railroad runs on private land with private buildings, and a proper loan package should be secured by these tangible and valuable assets.
Mr. Hiaasen worries that the railroad plans to rent depot space at the Orlando airport, which has gotten state funding. But having a tenant is not a landlord’s expense, it’s income.
Officials in areas where the railroad would run but not stop are upset, too. Some oppose the noise of trains (in those counties, apparently, cars are all silent electrics) or traffic halts at crossings – unless trains stop in their towns.
This is NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard. Native Americans of the American West no doubt had similar concerns at the coming of railroads a century and a half ago. Bear in mind that building an expressway rather than a railroad would trigger exactly the same reactions.
So, what of Mr. Hiaasen’s fear that the railroad would lose money? Could be. If so, the loser would be Coral Gables’ Florida East Coast Industries, which is creating the line. Loans should be secured by land and buildings, so a misconceived railway might lose its shirt but lenders – including government – shouldn’t.
When business owners invest in projects from which they expect profits, some lose. That’s free enterprise.
So when a business puts its own money, energy, expertise and land into something that promises so many benefits to Miami and all of Florida we should indeed be all aboard.
It’s sad to see a few left behind at the station.