Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is the Metro Editor for WNYC News. She has previously served as Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) UPDATED WITH US DOT COMMENTS: Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott is sticking to his decision to kill the Tampa to Orlando high speed rail.
Scott's decision is a major setback to President Obama's goal, put forward in his state of the union, to link eighty percent of Americans to high speed rail within 25 years.
In an unusually sharply worded statement, U.S. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair said “The U.S. Department of Transportation has addressed every legitimate concern Governor Scott has raised with respect to plans to connect Florida through high-speed rail. We have repeatedly and clearly told Governor 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.”
Last week Scott abruptly announced he would be pulling the plug on the $2.7 billion rail line, the first true high speed rail in the U.S. The Tampa to Orlando line, which was also to stop at Disney World, was to have been complete in just four years -- by 2015. Scott said Florida's $280 million investment carried too much risk, and that he would return $2.4 billion to the federal government.
But a day after Scott's decision,
Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood met at Nelson's office, and afterward a bi-partisan congressional group, including Republican Rep. John Mica, Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced it would try to put together a deal where a third party would assume all responsibility -- and the risk -- for the $280 million not covered by the federal government, plus any cost overruns.
Several companies told Transportation Nation they would be willing to be part of such a deal, on the theory they'd get to build the first true high speed rail line in the US, what was planned to be part of a much longer line that would extend all the way to Miami.
But because of the way the agreement between the US DOT and Florida was structured, this could not happen without Scott's sign-off. Scott would not, sending officials like Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio into paroxysms of rage.
"The most disturbing part of the Governor’s decision is that he will not even allow the bid process to take place. In effect, the message being sent to eight world-wide business consortiums across the globe and the United States is don’t bother," Iorio said in a statement. (Full statement at end of article)
She went on to say that Governor Scott's "reasoning does not take into account the work that has been done in the past week, which lays out a clear path for private investment and risk responsibility. The facts are clear: we have addressed his concerns on risk – the risk will fall to the private sector."
Scott is a Republican elected in Florida last November with heavy support from the Tea Party, earlier this year, he announced his budget not in Tallahassee, but before an invited audience of Tea Party members in a small town north of Orlando.
Unlike some of his fellow Republicans, like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Governor Rick Scott did not campaign on an anti-high speed rail platform, but he did express concern during Florida's final gubernatorial debate last fall about what a high speed rail line would cost Floridians.
This makes for the second time congress members, local politicians, and the U.S. DOT unsuccessfully tried to convince a governor to resume a big infrastructure project. The first was last October, when NJ Governor Chris Christie sent back more than $2.5 billion in federal funds that was to have been spent on a $9 billion transit tunnel under the Hudson River. Christie also cited risk. Full Iorio statement here.
Official Statement by Mayor Pam Iorio
Subject: High Speed Rail
Tampa, Fla. (February 24, 2011) – Over the past week leaders from the Tampa and Orlando business communities and elected officials from the federal, state and local levels have been working to address the concerns expressed by Florida Governor Rick Scott relating to High Speed Rail. Working together, we successfully created a plan with supporting legal analysis that outlined how we could address the Governor’s concerns, privatize the High Speed Rail plan, and protect the Florida taxpayer from risk. (The documents pertaining to the creation of the new entity and the protections for taxpayers are being disseminated to the public through the media).
Despite talks with the Governor’s staff since Monday, and despite the validity of the arguments for the privatization of the High Speed Rail project, Governor Scott will not allow the project to move forward. His reasoning does not take into account the work that has been done in the past week, which lays out a clear path for private investment and risk responsibility. The facts are clear: we have addressed his concerns on risk – the risk will fall to the private sector.
The most disturbing part of the Governor’s decision is that he will not even allow the bid process to take place. In effect, the message being sent to eight world-wide business consortiums across the globe and the United States is don’t bother. As a mayor who cares about economic development and the encouragement of investment by the private sector, I can not understand or justify his stance. Only the private sector can answer the question of the viability of the project; their willingness to invest and absorb the risk would illuminate the entire issue.
What has become clear in the last week is just how strong the relationship is between Tampa, Orlando and the I-4 corridor – the Super Region. In a compressed timeframe everyone worked together toward a common goal, gathered the facts, and created a structure that protected taxpayers and placed the risk with the private sector. Though this project is not being allowed to move forward, I have great optimism about the future relationship of this Super Region for we are united in a common goal of progress.