LaHood Gives Florida One Week to Find Rail Options

LaHood Gives Florida One Week to Find Rail Options

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is giving Florida lawmakers one week to see if they can salvage a high-speed rail project that Gov. Rick Scott vowed to kill, or he could soon redistribute $2.4 billion in rail project grants to other states.

LaHood met Thursday with members of Florida's congressional delegation. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, reportedly could not attend but has publicly urged Scott to reconsider his Feb. 16 decision to turn down the funds. The deadline would give backers of the project until Feb. 25 to see if they can keep the Tampa-Orlando project going to build the nation's first truly high-speed rail line in its own dedicated corridor.

If the salvage efforts fail, Florida's piece of the federal passenger rail program funding could head to California, which is developing the only other bullet train service in the U.S., and to states like Washington and New York that are expanding intercity rail operations in corridors shared with and usually owned by freight railroads.

In those cases, federal and state officials say the investments in passenger rail also add efficiencies to freight rail movements through signal and track system upgrades.

Substantial projects are also under way or planned that invest in freight corridors for passenger service in Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan and Iowa, and officials say a number of implementing contracts are close to completion among states, the freight lines and federal authorities.

LaHood and Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari disputed Gov. Scott's contention that the rail plan could saddle state taxpayers with hefty cost overruns. Instead, they said, the DOT had already worked with Florida officials and private sector partners in the project to make sure the state would not be stuck with additional costs.

Scott also said he asked LaHood to shift the money into freight and other infrastructure projects including port dredging, an intermodal terminal and widening of major highways. But the federal rail program does not allow states to reallocate their targeted rail grants to other purposes.

-- Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.