Tampa to Orlando high-speed rail could cost $3 billion more than expected

Comparisons to California and other rail projects suggest rail system will cost Florida taxpayers much more than $280 million

If the proposed Tampa to Orlando high-speed rail line goes over budget or fails to meet ridership expectations Florida taxpayers could get stuck with a bill of up to $3 billion, according to a new Reason Foundation report.

Long-standing research shows costs are underestimated on nine out of every 10 large passenger rail transportation projects, with cost overruns averaging 45 percent. If the Tampa-Orlando rail line were to go over budget by 45 percent Florida taxpayers would be on the hook for $1.2 billion more than the $280 million currently forecast.

The Reason Foundation warns that Florida may be miscalculating the costs of high-speed rail by even more than that. Consider that the expected cost of building the first segment of California’s high-speed rail line is 111 percent higher than Florida’s – $67.8 million per mile compared to $32.1 million per mile in Florida. The costs of the Tampa to Orlando system would be $3 billion more than advertised using California’s estimated cost per mile.

The Reason study also flags concerns about ridership numbers. The Florida project is predicted to carry 2.4 million riders annually, which is two-thirds the ridership on the existing Amtrak Acela Express service. The Acela trains serve several big metropolitan areas, including New York, Washington, D.C, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The population of those cities is approximately eight times the population of the Tampa and Orlando metropolitan areas.

“The risk to Florida taxpayers is likely to be many times greater than current projections for this high-speed rail proposal,” said Wendell Cox, author of the report and head of Wendell Cox Consultancy. “History tells us that cost overruns could run into the billions and ridership shortfalls will likely leave taxpayers with an open-ended bill for operating subsidies.”

“It’s understandable that some are dreaming of flashy high-speed rail trains carrying tourists and residents between the two cities,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation at Reason Foundation and a transportation advisor to Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, in a written statement. “Unfortunately, the numbers just don’t add up. When you look at realistic construction costs and operating expenses you see these trains are likely to turn into a very expensive nightmare for taxpayers.

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The full study is available at http://reason.org/studies/show/tampa-to-orlando-high-speed-rail-pl.

The Reason Foundation’s transportation research is available at https://reason.org/topics/transportation/