In the White House’s High-Speed Rail Chase, a First Likely Winner: Florida

The prediction that Rep. John Mica (R-FL) backtracked on last month is starting to come true: President Obama is headed for Florida on Thursday, and the state is all but certain that he's coming with $2.6 billion in federal stimulus funding for a new high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando.

The state envisions an 85-mile Tampa-Orlando link as the first phase in a network of bullet trains that would eventually reach as far south as Miami (see picture at left).

And the state's dream is years in the making; an environmental impact study of the Tampa-Orlando route was completed in 2005, and Florida has already acquired a dedicated right-of-way along the I-4 corridor with an estimated worth of $100 billion.

Even Orlando's resident corporate giant, Disney, came out in favor of the rail plan last fall.

As railroad expert and veteran reporter Mark Reutter notes in a highly readable high-speed rail briefing paper [PDF] for the Progressive Policy Institute:

We believe this line should serve as a demonstration project that showcases state-of-the-art technology and proves the viability of fast trains not only to Florida residents but to the millions of Americans who visit Orlando and Tampa yearly.

The state's planned route would include stops in the Lakeland area and the Orlando airport, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, with trains expected to begin running by 2014. In addition to the anticipated federal contribution, private investors are being wooed for an extra $1 billion, putting the total cost of Florida's first high-speed rail project at about $3.5 billion.

Politically speaking, the White House's decision to bestow rail money on a swing state -- and one where legislators have fought intense partisan battles over new high-speed trains -- is a sound one. As the Herald-Tribune notes, there also may be a slight side benefit for the state's marquee Senate race if Gov. Charlie Crist (R), facing a conservative primary challenger, ends up a no-show at Thursday's announcement.

A $2.5 billion grant to Florida also leaves $8 billion left for the Obama team to apportion to other promising rail proposals, including those in the midwest and California. (Last year's economic stimulus law approved the first $8 billion for bullet trains, with another $2.5 billion added by Congress in December.)

But as Yonah Freemark observed in July, the price of Florida's high-speed rail victory may be paid over time by residents of the Tampa-Orlando area. Without a link to downtown Orlando, the rail network's potential to promote dense, mixed-use development near its various stations could be significantly diminished.