By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 16, 2011……….Federal officials and state lawmakers plotted an uncertain path to revive high speed rail in Florida Wednesday after Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion that was on the table for a Tampa-to-Orlando bullet train with little notice.
Scott joined newly-elected Republican governors in two other states in rebuffing President Barack Obama’s effort to build a nationwide network of trains, leaving U.S. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica of Orlando looking for a plan B.
“We haven’t raised the white flag of surrender on the project,” Mica said in a conference call. “We’re going to explore every option, the secretary (of transportation) said he would review all of his options. But at this particular point, quite frankly I don’t know what they are.”
The bewilderment ran from the nation’s capitol to Tallahassee, when Democrats and quite of few of Scott’s fellow ruling Republicans fumed that the new governor had left them in the dark in his decision to turn out the lights on the long-sought high speed rail project. The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Jack Latvala, said that he spoke with Scott yesterday, at the governor’s request, and he was not informed of the decision.
“I didn’t get any notice of it,” a clearly disappointed Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, told the News Service of Florida. “I was in his office…discussing transportation issues and I had no idea this was coming nor did he ask for my opinion.”
Like Mica, Latvala said the Legislature would explore its options for reviving the off-again, on-again, off-again train, though he said Scott was within his right to reject the money.
“The implementation is in the department (of transportation),” he said. “We appropriated about $300 million for the project. He can choose not to spend it.”
Though governors in Wisconsin and Ohio made splashy announcements when they rejected rail money shortly after winning office in November, neither of those states were offered 90 percent of the projected cost of their proposed trains like Florida was for its Tampa to Orlando line. That made Scott’s decision the highest profile rejection yet of the White House’s push to get the country on board with rail, and other states quickly began jockeying for the money.
The most likely recipient is California, which was the only state that topped Florida’s award in federal rail money over the last two years.
But Mica said that the Florida Congressional Delegation was going to see if they could stop that from happening.
“The (U.S. transportation) secretary and I have decided to look at our options, by end of the week and soon as the highly paid folks analyze them,” a new plan will be formed, Mica said.
The timing of Scott’s announcement clearly caught lawmakers in Washington and Tallahassee off-guard, but it was a decision he has hinted at since taking office in January. Making it official Wednesday, Scott said he just thought it was too risky for Florida taxpayers to let the train roll.
“As you know, my background is in business, not politics. But you don’t have to be economic experts to understand if you spend more than you take in, you will fail,” Scott said in a hastily-arranged news conference. “Government has become addicted to spending beyond its means, and we cannot continue to do that, in Washington or in Tallahassee.”
“President Obama’s high speed rail program is not the answer for Florida’s economic recovery,” Scott continued. “The answer is to reduce government spending, cut government’s reach on our state’s job creators and then hold that government accountable for the investments it makes. That is what I was elected to do…and that’s how I’m going to govern the state of Florida.”
Scott said three factors made him put the brakes on the rail project, including the potential for construction cost overruns, which he said could put the state on the hook for $3 billion dollars. Also problematic, Scott said, is that train ridership and revenue estimates have been historically overly optimistic and the fact that Florida would have had to return the money to Washington if it decided at a later date to stop the project. Scott noted that the existing Tri-Rail commuter train in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties receives subsidies from the state.
“I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits,” Scott said. “My job is to represent the taxpayers of this state, and I’m not comfortable that this project we ought to be doing, it’s not a project that I’m comfortable is going to get return for the investors and I represent the investors of Florida, the taxpayers.”
Democrats nationally and in Florida sharply criticized Scott’s decision as being short-sighted.
“If Florida would’ve had a governor who rejected President Eisenhower’s idea, we wouldn’t have an interstate system,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has been vocally supportive of the project even as conservatives attacked him for it, said via Twitter Wednesday afternoon.
“Since taking office, the governor has done a great job at shutting down transportation projects which would have kept employed or put to work thousands of Floridians,” Florida Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Westin, said in a statement. “The decision to reject Washington’s offer to return billions in our tax dollars to pay the bulk of a high speed rail project between Orlando and Tampa being the latest. ‘Let’s get to work’ is starting to ring hollow in the face of a resilient 12 percent unemployment rate.”
Scott’s decision is likely to play well with the tea party movement in Florida that powered his political rise, but another key element of the Republican establishment has vocally backed the project: the state’s business lobby. One of the state’s main business advocacy groups, Associated Industries of Florida, pushed lawmakers to pass legislation in special session in 2009 that enabled the construction of another train in Orlando, SunRail, to show federal transportation officials they were serious about rail. The organization carefully chose its words to express its disappointment in Scott’s decision, but ultimately remained in support of the governor.
“While Associated Industries of Florida has been a proponent of bringing high speed rail to Florida, and was hopeful we could do so with the backing of private-sector investment, we understand and respect Gov. Scott’s decision to reject the Tampa to Orlando project,” AIF President Barney Bishop said in a statement. “Given these tough economic times and a past culture of deficit spending, we recognize that Floridians do not have an open checkbook and we as a state cannot afford to operate on credit.”
The rejection from the new governor was another big blow to a project that is well on its way to having as many lives as any cat in Florida. A high speed train connecting central and South Florida was originally placed in the Florida Constitution by voters in 2000, but it was removed by the same electorate in 2004 after a successful campaign backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, who argued the state could not afford it.
Backers had hoped that the promise of most of the money being paid for by the federal government would be enough to really get the train rolling this time, but by Wednesday, proponents of the plan were making comparisons to sinking boats.
“The ship has taken on a broad side hit,” U.S. Rep. Mica said. “It hasn’t sunk. It has taken on a lot of water. We’re seeing if the vessel can be salvaged.”
Supporters said the train could have begun running in 2015. As recently as last week, state transportation officials were telling a Florida House committee that they were optimistic the federal government might provide up to 80 percent of a second leg of the train from Orlando to Miami that was projected to be even more costly than the central Florida portion.
But Scott was never a believer.
“Here’s my experience in business: if you enter into a project where it’s not a good transaction for the other side, it always come back to be a problem for you,” he said. “You look at ridership studies; I don’t see any way anyone’s going to get a return, so I’m very concerned about the Florida taxpayers.”