In his stunning but not totally unexpected announcement to reject $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail, Florida Gov. Rick Scott hammered on rosy ridership projections that he believed weren't attainable.
Scott said he was briefed on the most recent ridership studies that found 3.07 million riders would use the 84-mile rail line linking downtown Tampa to the Orlando International Airport. Previous studies said about 2.4 million riders would use the rail line in the first year.
"Ridership and revenue projections are historically overly optimistic and would likely result in ongoing subsidies that state taxpayers would have to incur," Scott said during remarks announcing his decision on Feb. 16, 2011.
He later offered evidence to back up his assertion that the rail line was, as he called it, high risk.
"It is projected that 3.07 million people will use the train annually," Scott said. "Keep in mind that Amtrak's Acela train in Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore only had 3.2 million riders in 2010. And that market population is eight times the size of Tampa-Orlando."
We wanted to check Scott's comparison between the I-4 corridor of Florida and the bustling northeast.
Florida's high-speed line was projected to cost around $2.7 billion to build, with the federal government picking up all but about $300 million. The state originally had said it would put up the remaining funds, but legislators recently suggested that a private business be asked to absorb that cost as part of a contract to operate the rail system.
Original ridership estimates said 2.4 million people would ride the system, with one-way ticket prices ranging between $15 and $30. A full third of those riders would use the train to move between Disney and Orlando International Airport. Under the original study, ridership was projected to grow to more than 3.5 million passengers per year by 2025.
Scott cited an updated estimate on 3.07 million people per year. Governor's office spokesman Brian Hughes said Scott was briefed about the new estimate from the Florida Department of Transportation and that a copy of the formal study was not yet available.
That leaves us to take Scott at his word. (We'll update this item if the number proves incorrect.)
As for the Acela, Scott is talking about Amtrak's high-speed rail linking the major metro centers of the northeast United States. The train runs between Washington, D.C., and Boston, with stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. The Acela generally has been considered one of the bright spots in Amtrak's portfolio. Nearly 72 percent of the Acela's 300 seats are selling on peak segments -- figures that have improved substantially over the past five years, the Washington Post reported. And while Amtrak relies on federal subsidies to stay in business, Amtrak officials maintain that the Acela line by itself is profitable.
In fiscal year 2010, Amtrak said 3.22 million people rode the Acela, an increase of 200,000 riders compared to 2009.
That puts Scott's comparison on solid footing, but it leaves out an important point.
The Acela service is just part of the Amtrak system in the northeast. Along with the high-speed Acela, Amtrak operates a more traditional regional rail line connecting the major cities of the northeast. The regional rail line has more stops and is slower. In fiscal year 2010, Amtrak reported that an additional 7.15 million people rode the northeast regional rail line.
Total, that means Amtrak trains are serving more than 10 million passengers in the northeast -- not the 3.2 million Scott cited. (For the record, Scott is right about the relative size of the two areas. The population of the Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the northeast is about a combined 38 million, compared to about 5 million for Tampa-Orlando.)
In offering a reason for rejecting $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail, Scott said the ridership projections were overly optimistic, and cited train service in the busy northeast corridor to prove his point. But Scott's reference to the high-speed Acela is only one form of service in that corridor, and he omitted the bigger chunk of Amtrak's passengers when comparing ridership. That's an important detail that would have added more context. We find this claim Half True.