Carl Hiaasen: Taken for a ride on the Boondoggle Express
Posted on August 31, 2015
All Aboard Florida, also known as the Boondoggle Express, is having public-relations problems.
Skepticism, anger and legal challenges stand in the path of the 16 passenger trains that are fancifully scheduled to run daily from Miami to the Orlando airport, and back again, beginning late next year.
One sticky point is the funding. All Aboard Florida has been touting itself as a private rail company that won’t be using public money, a deception embraced by Gov. Rick Scott.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation gave AAF the green light to sell $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds to raise funds, which is basically a federal loan for a project that’s doomed to lose a fortune.
All passenger trains in this country operate deep in the red, and couldn’t exist without heavy government subsidies. AAF wants Floridians to believe that it will be the sole exception, magically turning a profit where all others have failed.
In the parlance of the business world, this is known variously as “a crock,” or a “steaming crock.”
AAF has exactly zero chance of making money running passenger trains from Miami to Orlando. That’s probably why the company went for a government loan. Banks are too smart.
Consider the curious northbound route of the Boondoggle Express:
Using existing Florida East Coast railway tracks (belonging to its sister company), the new train will leave Miami, stop first in Fort Lauderdale, then West Palm Beach.
Interestingly, there’s already a train that does this several times a day. It’s called Tri-Rail, and it would go broke tomorrow without public funds.
Leaving Tri-Rail in the dust, the high-speed Boondoggle Express will shoot straight up the seaboard from West Palm straight to…Cocoa?
Yes, Cocoa, where instead of stopping the train will veer west on a yet-to-be-built 40-mile stretch of track ending at the Orlando airport. There, the train will park at a new station paid for with $213 million appropriated by the Florida Legislature — definitely not private money.
Even with the scenic detour through Brevard County, the train trip is supposed to take about three hours — which is two hours and 18 minutes longer than a commercial airline flight from Miami to Orlando.
AAF says most of its riders will be tourists and business people who would otherwise be driving cars. The train would save motorists roughly an hour of travel time, the company says, and also thin the traffic load on I-95 and the Turnpike.
These predictions come from a Ridership and Revenue Study completed in September 2013 and released last year. In it, a consultant firm hired by AAF says the new train service will have between 3.5 million and 5.1 million riders by 2019.
It’s an astounding forecast because it was missing one crucial piece of information: the price of a ticket.
Nowhere in the study summary does it reveal how much it will cost to ride the train. AAF still hasn’t answered the question, which makes the ridership data worthless. Post your ticket prices and then do the survey.
The strongest opposition to the train project comes from coastal communities north of West Palm, where people rightly fear the impact of 32 trains speeding each day through their downtowns.
Municipal leaders worry that the cost of creating safe “quiet zones,” where the trains aren’t allowed to blow their horns, will come out of local budgets. Promised rail upgrades and safety improvements have left many unpersuaded.
A recent Mason-Dixon poll found that 80 percent of residents surveyed in northern Palm Beach county and the Treasure Coast are against All Aboard Florida. Indian River and Martin counties have filed suit over the $1.75 billion in federally approved bonds, which will be issued through a state panel of Scott appointees.
If you live on the AAF route between West Palm and Orlando, you get nothing out of the deal. The trains won’t be stopping to drop off tourists or pick up passengers; they’ll just be making noise and tying up traffic.
Police and fire-rescue authorities worry that such frequent closures at rail intersections will impede first-responders in emergency situations. Thirty-two passenger trains a day, in addition to regular freight and Amtrak services, means that local crossing gates will be going up and down like see-saws.
AAF says no problem — the trains will be fast, the delays will be short. Tell that to somebody in a burning house, when the fire truck is stuck on the other side of the tracks.
There’s talk that All Aboard Florida might change its name, for PR reasons. Here’s one they can use for free:
All Appalled, Florida.