The Republican fight against high-speed rail in Florida exposes their grift

The Republican fight against high-speed rail in Florida exposes their grift

Florida is uniquely configured for a high-speed rail line. Major cities are at each corner of our vast state, and it’s not practical to fly, so you must drive. Florida is essentially a bastion, with only one highway going in and out: Interstate 95, which is often backed up. In a hurricane, we are told not to even use the interstate unless absolutely necessary because it will inevitably become clogged.

After decades of ignoring citizen’s initiatives and rejecting federal funds for a high-speed rail, a private company called All Aboard Florida has developed a high-speed rail line called Brightline. The company is so confident of success in Florida, it has poured billions of dollars into linking South Florida to Orlando and beyond. Right now, it only has one small line between Miami and West Palm Beach, which according to the CEO, ran at capacity with three times the number of passengers expected. The rail line has temporarily suspended service due to the pandemic.

Currently, Brightline executives are in negotiations with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to extend its line from Orlando to Tampa. This was the route of the federally funded planned high-speed rail line 11 years ago that former governor Rick Scott killed. Disney has also asked for a stop in Disney Springs, and is willing to pony up a handsome sum for it. Opponents, however, have made a special effort to ensure Brightline can’t go any further. FDOT has given Brightline only until July 31 of this year to reach a lease agreement on the state-owned land set aside for rail, or the project to Tampa will be killed. Most outrageous, however, are the onerous terms imposed.

FDOT has demanded a long list of terms for Brightline to fulfill. At the top of the list is the requirement that Brightline conduct a study to figure out how many cars will be taken off of Central Florida’s toll roads … and then punish the train for it.

A privately owned and funded company, Brightline must also agree to a method for compensating the state and the authority for lost toll revenues.

That’s right. The rail line has to somehow figure out how many cars won’t be using the toll roads, and then pony up the supposed difference to the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX). It was the very first two bullets in FDOT’s letter to Brightline:

  • Agree that Brightline will submit a ridership and toll diversion study and analysis with updated traffic and methodology and documentation acceptable to CFX and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise;  

  • Agree to the method that will be used for Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) and the Department to recover any loss of toll revenue due to the construction and operation of the Brightline system.

Think about how damned stupid that is. You might ask yourself how that is even legal.

Just keep in mind that this is Florida.

Our governor, Ron DeSantis, recently signed a law that punishes private companies like Twitter and Facebook for banning political candidates on their own platform—no matter what they say or do. (If your tech company, however, happens to own a theme park in Florida, you are exempted.) Even more recently, he signed a law that will require students and professors to register their political views with the state. As you can see, the Constitution and rule of law is pretty fluid in my home state when the GOP is allowed to run rampant.  

It’s bad enough to extort money from a private rail company to a toll road organization. Yet what’s even worse is who will actually be getting that money.

If you live in Central Florida, you are most likely aware of the decades-long corruption at CFX. In 2013, a grand jury investigation found a “culture of corruption” at the authority involving gifts, campaign donations, bribery, and secret meetings. Then-governor Scott’s pick for board chair, Scott Batterson, is still in prison for giving out millions in contracts to companies that agreed to hire his buddies.

The authority was originally created decades ago to pay for roads connecting Orlando to the coast, and once the roads were paid off, it was supposed to have been disbanded. That never happened. Tolls are still being collected, and the authority has grown into a behemoth. The millions in tolls collected goes to reconfigure existing roads and directly to the agency itself—but never to the community. The authority has high costs for lobbyists and marketing to ensure that it can continue the grift, along with the exorbitant salaries of its members. Asking a high-speed rail line to compensate for this is beyond the pale.

Yet this has been just one of many unnecessary roadblocks put forth. Republican leaders in several red counties, like Martin County and Indian River County, have so far sued to stop any expansion of Brightline, laughably claiming that they are concerned about safety. Indian River County spent $3.8 million of taxpayer funds in legal expenses since 2014, and even tried to appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the train. Donors from Indian River Shores, one of the wealthiest cities in Florida, donated over $200,000 for the effort. Since “safety” is their supposed reasoning for opposing the rail line, on June 2 Brightline offered to pay over $31 million in safety improvements (additional gates, signs, horns, etc.) if Indian River County agrees to stop suing.

Planned route will connect Miami to Orlando to Tampa

Like everything else in American society, public transportation is seen through an ideological lens. Democrats push hard for high-speed rail funding, and liberal congressional leaders are demanding it be part of the infrastructure package because it has proven to “dramatically improve our environment, reduce inequity, and help grow cities and sustain vibrant downtowns across the nation.” The positive impact on the environment is backed up by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that reports rail carries 8% of the world’s passengers and 7% of freight, yet only accounts for just 2% of transport energy use.

Republicans, on the other hand, have a long history of hating high-speed rail. They decry it as “socialist,” just like they do anything else that could help the average citizen. One of the most disingenuous and dumbest things George Will has ever written was that the goal of rail is to secretly modify people’s behavior toward communist “collectivism.” You see, cars can go anywhere, but trains can’t. With that impermeable logic, I guess airplanes and ships are communist as well.  

In reality, Republicans oppose rail because they get much of their campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, which have a strong interest in keeping us car dependent. Same goes with car manufacturers, which tend to be very loyal to the GOP. If you have any doubt, look no further than Toyota, which has defiantly donated more money than any other company to support members of Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results.

Sadly, people have been conditioned to accept traffic as an inevitable part of life. You have no other options. I love visiting Tampa from Orlando, but I don’t ever go unless I absolutely have to. A rail line would make sense. In fact, land has already been set aside thanks to former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who is a Democratic House representative today.

In 2000, after years of conservative politicians in Florida refused to even entertain the idea of high-speed rail, the voters of this state forced them to act. They voted for a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment that required the state to establish a high-speed rail corridor connecting the five largest urban areas. Instead of listening to the will of the people, the GOP legislature and then-Gov. Jeb Bush put forth another amendment to cancel out the first one—because that’s how government works here.

A decade later, President Obama offered Florida billions to build a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa. There was absolutely no downside to this. The federal government would have picked up almost all of the cost, with the little bit remaining likely picked up by private contractors. It was win-win. Yet Rick Scott shocked everyone by killing it outright. Scott owed his political fortune to the Koch brothers, oil barons who founded an entire organization—the ironically named Reason Foundation—to fight against any kind of “socialist” rail lines. This foundation has a long track record of showing up with biased experts and studies every time a community looked into high-speed rail to help shoot it down.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker rejected $800 million in federal funding to build a rail line between Milwaukee and Madison, even though it would have fully been paid for. Gov. John Kasich turned away $400 million for a line that would have connected Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Coincidentally, the Koch brothers donated the maximum amount allowed to Kasich’s campaign and $43,000 to Walker’s campaign via the Koch Industries PAC. However, this paled in comparison to the amount of help they got from the Koch’s super PAC, Americans for Prosperity, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

So Rick Scott rejected the federal funds with absolutely no study committees, no ridership studies, no waiting for construction bids, and certainly not listening to bipartisan leadership in Orlando and Tampa begging for him to just accept the money, Scott claimed he was opposed to government spending, even though the money wouldn’t go back to the government coffers—it went to New York and California for their projects.  

Now, once again, Florida is front and center for Biden’s effort to drag our state and nation into the 21st century. Pete Buttigieg outlined why Florida is the prime candidate for high-speed rail, and is proposing an expansive infrastructure package that Florida leaders would be stupid not to take.

Just a reminder that our governor is Ron DeSantis.

It is highly unlikely that our Republican government will accept any funds to help along the high-speed rail initiative in Florida. Yet Democrats do have options. One thing the Democratic House can do right now is make it easier for high-speed rail companies to get private investment. Thanks to conservative efforts on the national stage, it is extremely expensive and difficult for private companies like Brightline to borrow money for these kinds of projects. Democrats have a real opportunity to break the logjam, and a very limited-time opportunity to do so.

If certain Democratic members can get past their obsession with bipartisanship, progress can be made. I say that because one party is ideologically opposed to technological progress, and I’m happy to provide examples:

  • America’s lighting industry supported legislation to put more energy efficient incandescents on the market, but conservatives somehow made this a political issue about freedom to use energy-wasting bulbs.  

  • Americans are decades behind all other industrial nations when it comes to renewable energy, which not only has cost us valuable jobs and technology, but is causing catastrophic environmental consequences as well.  

  • Meanwhile, treatment of various injuries and diseases have been stymied by baseless Republican opposition to fetal tissue and embryonic stem cell research.

Just imagine how far along America could be without the Republican party.

In China, there are 40,000 kilometers of high-speed rail. In America, before Brightline, there was essentially zero. (Technically, Amtrak’s Acela line has portions that are high speed.) Despite having the necessary infrastructure in place and the obvious need, America has fallen so far back that we are now two generations behind in rail—and we will likely never catch up. While every other nation upgraded to high-speed rail decades ago, the GOP ensured our trains stayed mired in 1950s technology. Now, even the high-speed rail we are fighting to get is outdated, while Asian and European nations are experimenting with magnetic levitation. Maglev trains can go between 250-500 mph. We’d settle for Amtrak trains that can go faster than 40 mph.

Like the mask debate, a good percentage of Florida Republicans want to oppose something beneficial only because progressives point out we need it. Yet despite their rhetoric, they know that high-speed rail is not only necessary, but profitable. That’s why there are so many private investors, including one Rick Scott.

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