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LaHood Gives More Time for Florida's Decision to Nix Fast Rail

BRADENTON, Fla. — After meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Friday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood gave the state another week to decide once and for all if it wants $2.4 billion in federal funds to build a high-speed rail network.

LaHood said he told the governor the project would create jobs and economic development for the entire state.

Scott "asked me for additional information about the state's role in this project, the responsibilities of the Florida Department of Transportation, as well as how the state would be protected from liability," LaHood said in a statement Friday afternoon.

"I have decided to give Gov. Scott additional time to review the agreement crafted by local officials from Orlando, Tampa, Lakeland, and Miami, and to consult with his staff," he said, adding that Scott agreed not to make a final decision until the end of this week. "I feel we owe it to the people of Florida, who have been working to bring high-speed rail to their state for the last 20 years, to go the extra mile."

Just three hours after LaHood extended the deadline, the governor's spokesman, Brian Burgess, e-mailed a statement to the press saying Scott's position remained unchanged.

"I believe high-speed rail is a federal boondoggle, as I said more than a week ago," the Republican governor said. "This morning I communicated to Secretary LaHood that as long as Florida remains on the hook for cost overruns, operating costs, and paybacks in the case of default, I will vigorously oppose this project.

"While I appreciate his continued efforts to keep the project alive in Florida, it is important to note that I have yet to see any proposal that accomplishes my goal of eliminating risk to Florida's taxpayers," he said.

An unprecedented coalition of the major cities that stand to benefit the most from high-speed rail — Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando, and Miami — pulled together a detailed proposal that addressed all the issues cited by Scott. The proposal was presented to the governor's staff on Wednesday.

However, as of Friday Scott had yet to acknowledge that the proposal existed.

According to the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, several options are being considered as proponents try to keep Florida's project on track.

Efforts are being made to identify another state authority that can receive the federal funds and administer the program.

The rail system could be designated a "Project of National Significance" administered directly by the U.S. DOT during its initial development phase with cooperation from local Florida governments and private-sector involvement.

Some proponents have discussed challenging the legal authority of the governor to halt the project, while others have considered passing a bill in the Florida Legislature to override the governor's decision.

The $2.4 billion in federal funds were to go for the first leg of Florida's planned route between Tampa and Orlando. More than $27 million of the federal funds have been spent so far.

Additional stimulus funding had been awarded to the state to work on various planning documents for the second leg of the route from Orlando to Miami.

The state itself has spent millions of dollars on planning and development over many years, which is why the Tampa-to-Orlando route is seen as the most shovel-ready project in the U.S. Eight consortiums with international partners were interested in the entire project.

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