BRADENTON, Fla. — Four Florida cities that tried to take control of the planned high-speed rail project from Tampa to Orlando will be allowed to apply for the $2.4 billion of federal funds that Gov. Rick Scott has rejected for the plan, according to Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced late Friday that his agency will use a competitive merit-driven process to select applicants with high-speed rail projects to receive the $2.4 billion originally awarded to Florida. Applications for the funds are due April 4.
“During this new … process the inter-local agreement developed by the cities of Orlando, Tampa, Lakeland, and Miami will be eligible to apply,” Brown said. “Amtrak and other eligible transportation operators will be able to apply for the funding individually, or in conjunction with the cities that make up the inter-local agreement.”
The mayors of the four 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, including paying the shortfall between the federal grant and the cost of the system, which is estimated to be $280 million.
Their privatization proposal was developed in an attempt to convince the governor that high-speed rail would be as risk-free to taxpayers as possible with private developers assuming construction cost overruns and any shortfall in operating revenue due to low ridership.
LaHood promised that the federal government would not require any of its funds to be repaid if the project failed.
Despite the assurances, Scott rejected the $2.4 billion on March 4.
Scott had also cited overblown ridership projections on other projects when he first announced his intention to reject the funds before a new ridership study was due for the Tampa-to-Orlando route and before allowing the state DOT to seek concession bids.
The study by Wilbur Smith Associates and Steer Davies Gleave was released last week and showed that more than 3.3 million people would have used the fast train, and would have returned a $10 million operating surplus in 2016, its first year of operation.
Eight consortiums had shown interest in building the line, though it was widely known that the second leg of the route from Orlando to Miami would be the most profitable.
Richard Lawless, president and chief executive officer of U.S. Japan High-Speed Rail, reportedly appeared at a congressional field hearing held by House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla., on Monday and said that Scott should have allowed the companies to submit proposals to determine if the project was viable, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
“Beyond a doubt, a high-speed rail line would be of tremendous benefit to the state of Florida, both for the state’s infrastructure as well as for job creation,” Brown said. “With the unemployment rate in our state just under 12%, an investment in our state’s infrastructure of this magnitude would come at a most critical time, and serve as a tremendous boost towards getting Floridians back to work.”
The Florida cities have not publicly announced if they will submit an application for the federal funds. Supporters predict that their project will be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish without the governor’s support because the route planned for the Tampa-to-Orlando leg is in the median of Interstate 4, which is owned by the state.
It is not clear if the Legislature could give approval to use the median but any bill lawmakers might pass would be subject to veto by the governor.