Despite Nelson, Scott Insists Boondoggle Rail Is Dead
LaHood gives Florida another week to salvage high-speed line
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In what one critic called a "theatrical attempt" to salvage the $2.4 billion venture, groups from Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando and Miami have cobbled together a plan to circumvent Gov. Rick Scott's rejection of federal stimulus funding.
The end-around is being touted by Nelson, who announced Friday that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had given the state "at least one more week to reconsider" moving forward with the rail line. The announcement came after a meeting in Washington, D.C., between Scott and LaHood.
“I am grateful the governor has agreed to listen to the facts on how the state will have no financial responsibility in high-speed rail," Nelson said in a statement. "I’m especially grateful to Secretary LaHood for giving Florida at least one more week before our money goes to another state.
"Hopefully, this will be enough time for people of good intentions to come together and put Florida’s interests first. There is too much at stake for us not to try everything we can.”
Scott immediately doused Nelson's production with cold water.
"My position on high-speed rail remains unchanged," Scott said in a statement after the LaHood meeting. "I believe high-speed rail is a federal boondoggle, as I said more than a week ago.
"This morning I communicated to Secretary LaHood that as long as Florida remains on the hook for cost overruns, operating costs and paybacks in the case of default, I will vigorously oppose this project."
Scott added that after his meeting with the transportation secretary, "Secretary LaHood extended his own deadline for coming up with a way to alleviate Florida’s risk on high-speed rail. While I appreciate his continued efforts to keep the project alive in Florida, it is important to note that I have yet to see any proposal that accomplishes my goal of eliminating risk to Florida’s taxpayers."
The cities' four-page document envisions forming an interlocal entity to complete the "design, planning, construction, operation and maintenance" of the high-speed rail project originally proposed to serve the 84-mile corridor between Tampa and Orlando.
The initiative mirrors the political posturing of Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who previously pushed for local alternatives, including a scaled-down spur connecting the Orlando airport with the Disney attractions.
But those ideas have failed to gain traction because the state owns 90 percent of the land along the proposed corridor. The shorter Orlando line would not qualify for federal HSR dollars because it could not achieve the 180-mph requirement.
The latest last-gasp effort, floated before Friday's original funding deadline, was given no chance of success by Ken Orski, a Maryland-based transportation writer and lawyer.
"The proposed "Non-Recourse" arrangement sounds great on paper, but if you read it carefully there are an awful lot of loopholes that could come back to haunt the state in the future.
"Are the cities of Orlando, Tampa, Lakeland and Miami really competent to assume all the obligations under this agreement, such as 'oversight responsibility in the same manner as a typical FDOT project'?" Orski asked.
The Florida Department of Transportation did not respond to Sunshine State News' request for comment.
While Nelson said the plan would relieve the state of liability, others weren't so sanguine.
Sharon Calvert -- head of No Tax for Tracks, which helped to derail a tax referendum to fund a commuter line in Hillsborough County -- said local governments could not avoid liability under the proposal that has open-ended costs.
Calvert noted that the proposal contained no budget figures, ridership projections or offers or guarantees from private consortiums.
In the end, the local document's repeated references to FDOT's participation seemed surreal, given that the agency shut down its high-speed rail website this week.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos was equally unimpressed with LaHood's extension, and supported Scott.
“Adding another week to the deadline for Florida to take $2.4 billion to build high-speed rail won’t change my mind. No means no," said Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, in a statement late Friday.
"Why is Washington working so hard to spend money it doesn’t have? Instead of letting that money burn a hole in his pocket, Secretary LaHood should send it back to the federal treasury."
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.