(Washington, DC -- Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) Florida lawmakers are scrambling in Washington to keep $2.4 billion in high-speed rail money in their state after Gov. Rick Scott (R) yanked support for the funding yesterday.
A new plan hatched on Capitol Hill would transfer the federal funds to a third party in an effort to insulate Florida from any financial risks association with building or operating trains. But the plan would still need Scott’s support, an uncertain prospect in the politically-charged environment of government spending and debt.
Scott dropped a bombshell on Obama Administration officials and lawmakers Wednesday when he announced he would reject federal money to fund a long-planned project running trains high-speed trains between Orlando and Tampa.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), told reporters Thursday that lawyers are working on a plan that appoints a third-party entity to receive the money from the feds.
That entity—possibly Amtrak, a metropolitan planning organization, a transit authority, or some other public or private group—would administer the project and also shoulder Florida’s financial exposure. That amounts to about $280 million, at least at first. Nelson and other lawmakers argued the arrangement would take care of Scott’s concern that Florida could be on the hook for costs of building or running the system.
“That should meet the governor’s requirement,” Nelson said after a short meeting called between Florida lawmakers and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The plan needs sign-off in Scott’s office in Tallahassee, Nelson warned. LaHood has given the parties until February 25 to reach a deal.
“The governor is going to have to cooperate for that to happen,” he said.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who’s been tepid on high-speed rail funding in general, said he backed the high-speed rail in his state.
“If I didn’t think the project was cost-effective, I wouldn’t be here,” he told reporters gathered outside Nelson’s Capitol Hill Office.
But Mica said he was blindsided by Scott’s announcement.
“We were all taken aback by it,” Mica told reporters. “I had every indication prior to that that he would go forward.”
Scott’s decision sent lawmakers from other states clamoring for Florida’s money. Members of Congress from New York, California, and Minnesota and all made public appeals to the Obama Administration for the money if Florida passes.
Follow Transportation Nation on Twitter.