Despite the Feb. 16 decision by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to decline $2.4 billion in federal grants and halt a planned high-speed rail line, the Department of Transportation is exploring ways to keep the project alive.
Washington sources say Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has not yet decided to pull Florida grants for a bullet train service between Tampa and Orlando, which would be the first truly high-speed rail line in the U.S. and the first leg of a service that would eventually run to Miami.
In December, LaHood quickly redirected $1.2 billion in grants after incoming Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio vowed to kill projects to expand Amtrak passenger service using freight rail corridors. But this time, the outcome could be different, as LaHood and members of Congress are huddling to see if the project can move forward "without the state's involvement," one source said.
Scott's announcement roiled not only the Obama administration's signature passenger rail expansion program -- in which Florida was receiving over 20 percent of grant funds awarded so far -- but also Florida's congressional delegation. A number of lawmakers from the state, including Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and GOP Rep. John Mica, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, issued statements criticizing the action.
Mica's remarks were especially pointed, calling Scott's decision "a huge setback" for Florida's economy and transportation network. Scott had said he wanted to use the money instead for port dredging, an intermodal terminal and highway expansion, but the program does not allow the money to be shifted to other purposes.
Mica also said he was asking Scott to reconsider, and give backers of the project a chance to see if private sector involvement could keep it going without the state worrying about potential cost overruns or operating costs. LaHood said his team had already worked with Scott to eliminate Florida's financial risks.
If the Washington discussions do produce a revamped Tampa-Orlando plan, it could mean a restructuring of the whole program by giving private developers instead of states a chance to build some of these systems. That is something Mica has already been urging. He says the northeast corridor would be better served by a privately run, true high-speed service rather than leaving it as now to Amtrak.
-- Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.