Carl Hiaasen

Of all the ways Florida could blow through $1.25 billion in federal recovery funds, a bullet train is certainly the flashiest.

Connecting Tampa, Orlando and Miami by high-speed rail is a scheme that's been chugging around for decades, and the prospects for profitability are the same today as they always were: nil.

The money delivered by President Barack Obama last week in Tampa should have come with a note: "Here's a gift from Uncle Sam. Now go build yourselves something you can't possibly afford to operate."

Almost every passenger rail service in this country bleeds red ink and requires massive public subsidies, from Miami-Dade's infamous Metrorail to long-struggling Amtrak.

That didn't discourage Florida officials from eagerly petitioning the Obama administration for stimulus money to fund a sleek high-speed train.

The $1.25 billion grant announced by the president was the "down payment" for an 84-mile leg between Tampa and Orlando, braking at major tourist attractions along the way. The second phase, 240 miles, would link Orlando and Miami.

"An attractive and competitive transportation alternative for residents and visitors" is what the government calls it. An extravagant fantasy is what it really is.

Fast trains are very cool, and these babies will streak along at average speeds of 168 mph to 186 mph. Unfortunately, such a high-tech rail system can't pay for itself.

Ridership depends on friendly ticket pricing. Consequently, every mile traveled on the bullet train will end up being bankrolled by public dollars.

Thirteen years ago, when the debate was in high gear, a national transit consultant released a 55-page report predicting that a high-speed railway between Central Florida and Miami would be a fiscal disaster.

Wendell Cox of the James Madison Institute said that not enough people would take the train, partly because it was cheaper for families to rent a car and drive the same routes. He estimated that the high-speed rail would cost Floridians between $14 billion and $39 billion in ongoing subsidies.

Unlike the U.S. government, states can't print their own money. Florida's Constitution requires a balanced budget, which means that running the bullet train would siphon precious funds away from schools, social services and public works projects.

Despite the manifest drawbacks, the dream of connecting South Florida and Central Florida by modern rail has refused to stall. Between 1996 and 1998, the Legislature appropriated $77 million just for bullet-train research.

Over the years, the project has had avid proponents in both parties, including Bob Graham and, more recently Sen. Bill Nelson and Gov. Charlie Crist.

An exception was Jeb Bush, who as governor led a charge that rallied voters to repeal a constitutional amendment authorizing funding of a bullet train. Bush believed the project was too costly, and he was right.

In those days, supporters touted high-speed rail as a way of easing highway congestion and spurring commerce between the state's key urban centers. Now, with unemployment sky-high, the bullet train is being hyped more as a jobs program.

There's no doubt that building a railway will put thousands of people to work for a few years. But, once the project is finished, it is estimated to leave only 600 permanent jobs.

Weigh those against the enormous long-term cost of maintaining and subsidizing a 324-mile train system, which will necessitate cutting or scrapping other state programs that currently employ hundreds of workers.

To be sure, high-speed rail will be a windfall for the consultants, developers and builders involved in the construction phases. The state agency handing out the contracts is the Department of Transportation, which has long pushed for a bullet train.

If you know anything about the inside politics of mass transit, the thought of entrusting $1.25 billion in stimulus money to the DOT is heart-stopping. Good luck trying to keep tabs on it all.

True, many capital projects being launched by recovery funds -- bridges, roads, levies -- will provide only temporary boosts to local economies. Yet you can also argue that, for somebody who's out of work, a construction job lasting six months or a year is better than no job at all.

The problem with the bullet-train boondoggle is that the back-end costs will smother the front-end benefits, and create a perpetual sucking drain on Florida's frail budget.

We'd be better off using the money to pave potholes.