High-speed rail needs a push

It is the source of considerable professional pride that I have had a hand in a half-dozen amendments to Florida’s Constitution through the initiative process, but it’s the “one that got away” that still sticks in my craw.

As with the others, I poured a lot of heart and soul into the research that crafted Amendment 1 in 2000, directing the legislature to establish high-speed rail connections between Florida’s major population centers. But some lying politicians scared the voters into thinking a state income tax would be needed to pay for the bullet trains, so they rescinded the amendment in 2004.

The Amendment 1 campaign is a treasure trove of happy memories, working with Florida’s high-speed rail visionary, Doc Dockery of Lakeland, and his initiative wizard, John Sowinski. Doc, a saint if there ever was one, spent virtually every penny needed out of his own pocket — $3 million in all. But what brought him the greatest pleasure was telling the story of a little old lady who shared his vision and sent him a small campaign donation: $25, as I recall. We’d sit around dreaming about one day taking that first bullet train from Tampa to Orlando and we’d always imagine that excited lady on board.

Even though the amendment got canned, the dream has managed to stay alive. While the politicians tried every way possible to destroy the state’s high-speed rail commission, it persisted on a life-support budget and continued to work on plans for what the voters really wanted all along, “Twenty-First Century Travel Choices and Connections,” the same name we gave to our 2000 campaign committee. Now the Obama administration is raising hopes that the dream will not only survive, but become reality. There is stimulus money to complete at least the Tampa-Orlando leg of the system. But I fear this will be just another disappointment. The plan Obama seems to back falls short of Floridians’ expectations.

Throughout 1999 and 2000 we were constantly focus-grouping and polling Florida voters about high-speed rail. They were consistent in their skepticism of the plan. They would express reservations about cost, ridership and pretty much everything else. Then we’d show them a video of a Euro mag-lev train and they’d swoon, seemingly forgetting all their worries about cost and ridership. Old tax-hating men who hadn’t gotten a speed buzz since the muscle-car days of the 1960s got revved when our TV ad with the whizzing bullet train asked suggestively, “Wanna ride?”

Really fast was what we were selling and what people were buying. Faster-than-a-speeding-bullet fast. We would not have been able to sell “sorta fast,” as in Acela Express, our nation’s not-so-fast-except-occasionally-high-speed rail offering. It’s OK, but not the sort of travel option that will really ever be ultra-successful. The world defines “high-speed” as nothing less than 125 miles per hour. But here we want to allow Acela and Obama trains to trundle at speeds below 100.

Someone wise once advised consumers, “Always buy the best and you’ll never be disappointed.” Democrats need to get that word to the Obama administration and other rail planners. Don’t settle for less than true high-speed rail. If you do compromise, the resulting product and service might not be able to build a large enough market to support itself.

From my Florida experience, I fear that the problem may be akin to defense contracts, where the equipment contractors are calling the shots. They want to sell 90 mph trains when that’s not what the public wants. We shouldn’t listen to the contractors. They don’t sell to the public and don’t understand. Let’s get that little old lady in Tampa on a really fast train — soon.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.