Study: Florida commuter rail provides economic benefits, but it’s expensive

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Light rail may have created some economic activity in Central and South Florida, but it also comes with many concerns for taxpayers, according the state’s leading government watchdog group.

On Friday, the non-profit Florida TaxWatch released its latest Economic Commentary, highlighting Orlando’s recently launched SunRail and South Florida’s All Aboard Florida commuter rail, which expects to begin operating in 2016.

Pinellas County is also considering creating a light rail corridor, with the upcoming Greenlight Pinellas initiative, which is based on a one-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot that supporters claim will “transform bus service and create a modern passenger rail system.”

In the report, TaxWatch recognizes the need for improved transit throughout the state, and Florida is receiving a few benefits from at least one of the rail systems.

“Florida’s population is growing and is expected to continue increasing comparative to other states around the nation, therefore, it is critical that we invest in our state’s transportation system to ensure Florida remains a desirable place to live, work and play,” said Florida TaxWatch CEO Dominic Calabro. “As the state decides how to update its infrastructure to meet growing demand, we must be sure to explore all options to implement the best solution for taxpayers.”

After independent analysis, TaxWatch found that the Orlando SunRail commuter line, the first new commuter rail system to open in the United States in nearly three years, created 17,000 local jobs, with nearly $1.7 billion in new economic development.

SunRail began operations on May 1, connecting the town of DeBary with the Sand Lakes Road station, near Orlando International Airport.

The report continues that there will be economic growth attributed to the passenger trains in the future.

However, TaxWatch also points out several potential drawbacks to commuter rail, such as declining property values, increased traffic congestion, and high public investment costs.

The report warns that local governments should balance costs of commuter rail against the benefits, and explore other options to ensure the best, most economically efficient solution to Florida’s long-term transportation needs.

“There are both substantial costs and substantial benefits to large infrastructure projects such as these,” said Jerry D. Parrish, Ph.D., Chief Economist for Florida TaxWatch. “We must work diligently to make sure that all the costs and benefits are calculated correctly when making investments using public money.”

The full Florida TaxWatch report on commuter rail projects is available online.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.