BRADENTON, Fla. — In an effort to convince Gov. Rick Scott that Florida’s high-speed rail project is viable and as risk-free to taxpayers as possible, mayors and prominent business groups said Thursday that a proposal is on the table that answers Scott’s concerns.
The mayors held a press conference just hours before the Florida Supreme Court held oral arguments on a petition seeking to overturn Scott’s rejection of $2.4 billion in federal funds for the project. The mayors are not party to the suit.
“How is Florida to remain competitive if we don’t invest in infrastructure?” Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio asked during a press conference in Lakeland. “Here we have a meaningful opportunity with the federal government’s investment and the private sector willing to absorb the risk. I ask the governor one more time to reconsider his opposition.”
Iorio, Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, and Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado released a six-page letter to Scott detailing how their joint proposal to take over the project would resolve the governor’s concerns.
Scott has said he wants to reject $2.4 billion in federal funding for the first leg of the fast-train from Tampa to Orlando because taxpayers would be on the hook for construction cost overruns, shortfalls in operating revenue due to low ridership, and the potential of having to repay the federal grant if the rail project discontinues operation.
The cities, in an unprecedented partnership in Florida, said they would create a non-recourse entity to be the sub-recipient of the federal funds and build the system using a private contractor, or consortium, which would protect the state and taxpayers from financial risk. The winning contractor would cover all concerns raised by Scott, including paying the shortfall between the federal grant and the cost of the system, which is estimated to be $280 million.
They also released a letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation stating that there would be no requirement to repay the federal grant if the project failed.
“The governor challenged us to bring high-speed rail with no risk to taxpayers and we have done that,” Dyer said.
Three prominent business organizations — the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Central Florida Partnership, and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce — said in a joint statement that “any worthwhile investment has some risk, but the mayors have managed to eliminate all reasonable and foreseeable risks” with help from U.S. DOT.
“This project presents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a high-impact project that will help transform our economy,” the groups said.
Ultimately, the passenger rail project will link Tampa, Orlando, Miami, and Jacksonville, businesses, tourist attractions, airports, seaports, they said, adding: “As the first bullet train in the United States, it will lay the foundation for a whole new industry for Florida, attracting businesses, tens of thousands of jobs, innovation, and talent to our state.”
Meanwhile, Florida Supreme Court justices Thursday questioned why the federal government now required new certification from Scott since the state was awarded the funds, and former Gov. Charlie Crist provided the initial certification accepting the funds. They also questioned the “arbitrary” deadline imposed for acceptance of the funds.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has given Florida until Friday to make a final determination as to whether to accept the federal funds.
The justices’ comments came during oral arguments on a petition filed Tuesday seeking an emergency ruling brought by two state senators who want the high court to overturn Scott’s rejection of the federal funds. The justices are expected to rule Friday.
The senators alleged that Scott violated the Florida constitution’s provisions that separates the powers of his office and the Legislature. Scott responded to the suit saying he believes the project is a matter of policy and that he has the authority to reject the funds.
Justices said with little time to act on the emergency petition it would be difficult to wade through the maze of state laws that cover the state’s transportation program and requirements to build high-speed rail.
There were conflicting arguments about whether the Legislature had appropriated the $2.4 billion in federal funds or if lawmakers set up the state’s passenger rail program authorizing the state DOT to simply accept the award of federal funds into future years.
Several times justices said there must be a clear violation of the law for them to issue a ruling that would require Scott to accept the funds. It was not clear, though, if the senators’ attorney persuaded justices that Scott had violated the law.