BRADENTON, Fla. — Florida Gov. Rick Scott Thursday told four local governments that he would not change his mind about accepting $2.4 billion of federal funds for a high-speed rail project.
In an unprecedented partnership, Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando, and Miami joined forces after Scott told Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week that he would turn back the funds. LaHood gave the local governments until today before making the money available to other areas of the country eager for the funding, including New York.
City officials presented Scott with a plan that would allow them to accept the federal funds and complete the project, including privatizing the rail system to protect taxpayers from cost overruns and protecting the state from the possibility that federal funding would have to be repaid if the project was built and failed — two major risks cited by Scott when he initially rejected the funds.
"Despite talks with the governor's staff since Monday and despite the validity of the arguments for the privatization of the high-speed rail project, Gov. Scott will not allow the project to move forward," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. "As a mayor who cares about economic development and the encouragement of investment by the private sector, I can not understand or justify his stance."
Olivia Alair, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation, released a statement saying that the agency had addressed "every legitimate concern" Scott raised with respect to Florida's high-speed rail plan.
"We have repeatedly and clearly told Gov. Scott and his staff that Florida would not bear financial or legal liabilities for the project, and that there is strong private sector interest in taking on the risk associated with building and operating high-speed rail in the state," Alair said.
There was no indication how soon LaHood would make Florida's funds available to other areas of the country. The funds, allotted under the federal stimulus program, must be used only for high-speed rail. Scott said the federal government should apply Florida's funds to the federal deficit.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has been a long advocate of the rail project that would have started with the leg between Tampa and Orlando and on which more than $26 million federal funds have already been spent.
Planning had also begun on the second leg of the system from Orlando to Miami, which was seen as the most profitable for eight prospective consortium that had already shown interest.
Nelson also supported the local government proposal that Scott rejected Thursday.
"I am disappointed and, quite frankly, think it pitiful that Scott would turn down $2.4 billion in allocated funding for high-speed rail in the nation's fourth-largest state," Nelson said. "Such a decision will cost Florida 24,000 new jobs and will obstruct economic growth along the I-4 corridor, and eventually all the way from Orlando to Miami."
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, Fla., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he had done all he could to "salvage" the project, referring to an alternative that he suggested last week. Mica's alternative was to build a 21-mile section high-speed rail connection between Orlando International Airport and Disney World instead of the 85-mile route between Tampa and Orlando.
"While the governor's action will terminate the project at this time, it is my intention to work to salvage millions of dollars already expended and years of study on the critically important link from the Orlando Airport to our tourist area," Mica said. "I intend to reassess the project and work with local partners to continue seeking a federal and local solution in building this infrastructure project."
Florida's high-speed rail enjoyed bipartisan support, but it was opposed by the Republican's Tea Party, which backs Scott.
Some state lawmakers said late Thursday they were interested in determining if legal action could be taken against Scott for not abiding by state law. Comprehensive rail legislation passed in a special session in late 2009 was designed to make the state eligible for high-speed rail federal funding. Others have questioned whether Scott had unilateral authority to kill the project.
This week, Florida's website devoted to the high-speed rail project was taken down. The website contained all documents and meeting presentations. It is not clear when or if the state intends to release an updated ridership study which was due to be completed in days.
Scott's reasoning for rejecting federal funds for high-speed rail has raised questions about the fate of a long-planned $1.2 billion central Florida commuter rail system called SunRail. SunRail depends on local, state, and federal funding. Scott's office has held up the approval of several major contracts while the governor reviews the project.