High-speed scenarios too costly

As I'm clicking through the survey, I want to answer yes.

But question after question about whether I would take a high-speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa, I find myself answering no.

In eight scenarios laid out by the survey from the Florida Department of Transportation, the price of riding the train is too high to make it practical.

The cheapest train option the survey gave me included a $27 one-way ticket and a $5 fee to park my car at the station at Orlando International Airport. That would put my round-trip total at $63, including $4 in bus fares to get me to and from my final destination in Tampa.

I picked driving my own car over the train because, according to the scenario in the survey, I would have paid about $40 round-trip for gas and would have arrived at my destination about 30 minutes faster. A $20 savings and door-to-door service without the hassle of parking at the airport, boarding a train and then catching a bus won out.

Of course, all of these scenarios are hypothetical and based on information the survey collected from me about my most recent drive to Tampa: an outing to the Lowry Park Zoo.

The survey is designed to project how many people will ride the Orlando to Tampa route. It will be the first new data collected on that question since 2002.

Back then, state transportation officials used the help of the Florida Highway Patrol to randomly pull over motorists between Orlando and Tampa on I-4 and quiz them on whether they would rather ride a train if one existed.

Apparently, the highway interception method didn't sit too well with some folks. "We got a few letters," said Nazih Haddad, who is leading the state's effort to build the train.

So, this time around the state is targeting likely train users – such as people at the airport, I-Drive, some Disney hotels and areas in Lakeland and Tampa, along with motorists who have renewed their drivers license — to take an online survey. But anyone can take the survey, which is at http:/legacy.rsgsurvey.com/tots.

The results, which will likely be available by March, are important because they will be used to give the private companies who want to bid on building and operating the system a better idea of what ridership could be.

The 2002 survey estimated about 2.4 million riders each year, or about 12 percent of the market, Haddad said.

"We would not expect [the new results] to be highly different," Haddad said. The question for the companies that want to build and operate the system is whether at least the same amount or more people will support the system now.

Discounts are going to be a big part of that. It's hard to imagine many people — even frequent business travelers who have their employers picking up the tab — would go for the $49 one-way ticket and $20 parking fee, the most expensive scenario I saw in the survey.

The real demand for high-speed rail doesn't exist between Tampa and Orlando, but between those two cities and Miami. A larger rail network is necessary for the system to succeed.

Florida's next governor will have a lot to do with that. Democrat Alex Sink supports it. Republican Rick Scott has said he would put the project on hold.

The $2.1 billion in federal stimulus money committed to the Orlando-Tampa route has increased the likelihood that a larger network will follow. Otherwise, at best, we'll be left with a very expensive express line down I-4.

If the survey had asked me about travel between Orlando and Miami, I'm betting I would have picked the train over my own car at least once.

Like I said, I wanted to say yes.

Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448. Read her blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/thebottomline.

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