For the second time, Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected plans to build the nation's first truly high-speed passenger rail line, telling a coalition of state lawmakers he was not convinced efforts to shift control to local governments and private investors would eliminate the state's financial risks.
His action makes it more likely the Department of Transportation could redirect nearly $2.4 billion in grants from Florida to other states, where most passenger rail expansion projects are putting money into freight railroad corridors to upgrade their tracks and signals for passenger trains. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood earlier redeployed $1.2 billion in rail funds rejected by Wisconsin and Ohio to other states, and LaHood had given Florida officials until Feb. 25 to try to overcome Scott's objections.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called Scott's latest decision "a big mistake" and said rail backers were considering a possible appeal to Florida's Supreme Court, alleging the governor exceeded his authority to kill the project and turn down the federal grants for it. Scott had asked LaHood to instead spend the money on port dredging, highway expansions and an intermodal terminal.
DOT spokeswoman Olivia Alair said federal officials "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."
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had criticized Scott's Feb. 16 rebuff of the plan to build an 84-mile bullet train between Tampa and Orlando. Mica proposed that private investors be allowed to take over the initial 21-mile piece from Orlando's airport to Disney World and other tourist destinations, saying it could be profitable.
Mica said late Thursday that he understands Scott's issues. Still, Mica said, "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. I intend to reassess the project and work with local partners to continue seeking a federal and local solution in building this infrastructure project."
Supporters of the project - which was to be the first leg of a bullet train that would eventually also connect to Miami - say it could have generated tens of thousands of jobs, eased growing highway congestion in Florida and boosted the tourism industry there.
-- Contact John D. Boyd at firstname.lastname@example.org.