Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rick Scott rejects high-speed rail

TALLAHASSEE — Republican Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money to build a high-speed train between Orlando and Tampa Wednesday, baffling supporters who already had spent $66 million getting ready for the project.

Scott made the announcement in a hastily called news conference at which he denounced President Barack Obama's proposed federal budget.

"You don't have to be an economic expert to know when you spend more money than you take in, you will fail," Scott said.

Scott's decision likely means those dollars will be rerouted to California and other states investing in a high-speed rail network that Obama has likened to the national highway system. Washington state, in fact, sent out a press release asking for the money.

Scott had previously said he didn't want the state spending any money on the rail line, which required $280 million in matching funds. But backers of the project have said that the consortiums of companies set to bid on the line had indicated a willingness to put up their own money in return for a contract.

News of Scott's decision quickly rippled through Washington and Tallahassee, where lawmakers had approved the project during a special session in late 2009. Some lawmakers grumbled that Scott couldn't unilaterally overturn their decision.

In his brief press conference, Scott went into little detail about how he made his decision, referring only generally to his conclusions about the current and future cost of the train. The state has spent about $66 million on engineering for the 84-mile system and was about to issue contracts for another $170 million.
"My concern with this is if you look at ridership studies, I don't see any way anyone is going to get a return. And so I'm very concerned about the Florida taxpayers," Scott said.

The governor had said repeatedly he would await a ridership study being conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation before making a final decision on the project. Scott spokesman Brian Hughes said afterward that the study has not been completed but that Scott, before making his decision, received a telephone briefing on its findings.

Previous state studies of the train projected annual ridership of 1.9 million to 2.2 million passengers. That didn't include tourists who would ride it to Walt Disney World, which would have hosted a station, possibly near its Wide World of Sports attractions.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Scott said the federal dollars "are better invested in higher yield projects" such as widening Interstate 4 in Central Florida and I-95 through Martin, St. Lucie, Brevard and Volusia counties, and port-dredging projects in Jacksonville and Miami intended to accommodate larger container ships.

However, the federal dollars Florida would be forfeiting are designated specifically for rail projects, and "there is overwhelming demand for high-speed rail in other states that are enthusiastic to receive Florida's funding and the economic benefits it can deliver," LaHood said Wednesday.

Scott also said he was still reviewing the SunRail commuter train project linking downtown Orlando with Seminole, Volusia and Osceola counties later this decade, even though money has been set aside in the state budget he proposed last week.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, was among many upset by Scott derailing the train.
"I am deeply disappointed in the decision to not move forward with the Orlando to Tampa passenger rail project," Mica said in a statement. "This is a huge setback for the state of Florida, our transportation, economic development, and important tourism industry.''

He said he had already asked the governor to reconsider. His colleague on the House Transportation Committee, U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Jacksonville, called the decision "a nightmare."
And U.S .Sen. Bill Nelson said Wednesday he was exploring whether the federal government could press on with the project without the state's involvement.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said he had talked with LaHood and asked him not to reallocate the money, at least until train backers had a chance to ask Scott to reconsider. "This is a century-type decision that needs to be vetted. I don't think it was given a fair hearing," said Dyer, a Democrat.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said she was taken by surprise. "It's a decision based on ideology," said Iorio, a Democrat. "It's not a decision based on facts."

Among the most dismayed was C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the retired Lakeland insurance magnate who has spent 30 years trying to get a high-speed train in Florida.

He congratulated California because he figures LaHood will move much of the money there, just as he previously sent additional funds to Florida after Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio pulled out of high-speed endeavors. California wants to build a train that eventually would link Los Angeles with San Francisco.

Dockery also questioned whether Scott really understood the way the train was supposed to operate in Florida. The company chosen to build the train would have been contractually bound to cover any cost overruns in construction, as well as any operating deficits for up to 20 years.

In all, eight consortiums made up of international companies representing 11 countries had lined up to bid on the train that would have run from Orlando International Airport to downtown Tampa, with stops at the Orange County Convention Center, Walt Disney World and Lakeland.

""The governor is saying to these teams that they must be lying when they agree to accept cost overruns and ridership risks," said Dockery, a longtime Republican fundraiser and husband of state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.
Other legislators expressed dismay that Scott didn't wait for the private consortiums to offer their bids, and questioned why the governor would turn down thousands of jobs the project would create after campaigning on a "jobs agenda."

Lawmakers appropriated $300 million for the project last year, and Scott cannot constitutionally scuttle that spending without legislative authority, said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said he was told about the decision via a text message minutes before Scott's press conference. But even though lawmakers approved the project last year, there were mixed feeling about it given the tea party-fueled outrage over federal spending.

If lawmakers were to simply continue funding the project, he would expect Scott to veto the move in the budget, and, "I don't believe there'd be the support to override the veto."

But Scott's seeming disregard for the Legislature's appropriating power – whether it's selling a state plane or killing rail projects – is alarming.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, said he planned to lobby lawmakers to fight the governor's move and didn't believe Scott could unilaterally kill the project.

"I disagree with what the governor has said, and I do hope this is not an irrevocable situation," Simmons said.
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, was more critical, saying the decision was "tragic" and that Scott should not have prevented the private market from setting a value for high-speed rail.

"We haven't even received proposals. There's no benefit at all at this point in the game to say we won't fund it. Without letting the private sector come to the table, we really don't know how viable it is," he said.
"There's no rational reason at all not to allow that to happen -- unless you're afraid of what you might here. We might hear that this thing will work."

Scott did find support from Robert Poole, a member of his transition team and a rail expert employed by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.

Poole said he was skeptical that a business would be willing to cover possible construction overruns or operating deficits, meaning the state could have been forced to bear those expenses. "I think this is a responsible decision," Poole said.

Rick Scott rejects high-speed rail: Gov. Rick Scott says he's rejecting federal high-speed rail money -

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