Legislators Stress Jobs, Funding for High-Speed Rail Project
Around the State
State Senators heaped praise on Florida's high-speed rail project Tuesday, touting it as a massive job creator that might not cost state taxpayers a dime.
Florida Department of Transportation officials told legislators the project's first phase, which would connect Tampa to Orlando, could create more than 48,000 jobs during the construction period, and that state construction costs could be borne by private companies hoping to become the first to build a high-speed rail project in the United States.
“This would be the first express high-speed rail line in the country and they want to get their foot in the door,” said DOT assistant secretary Kevin Thibault.
DOT estimates show that the Tampa-Orlando line would eventually create between 600 and 1,000 permanent jobs after construction is completed. The project’s second phase, which would connect Orlando to Miami, would create about 170,000 jobs directly and indirectly related to the project during construction, and between 2,500 and 4,800 permanent jobs.
Through stimulus and other federal dollars, $2.4 billion out of the Tampa-Orlando line’s $2.7 billion cost has been raised. Florida must finance the remaining $280 million. Senators are keen to get private companies to put up those funds.
“I think we’re going to get more than the $280 million (from private companies),” said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.
The high-speed rail project came before the Commerce and Tourism Committee a week after a report authored by one of Gov. Rick Scott’s transportation transition team advisers took a skeptical view of the project’s costs. The report, released by the libertarian-minded Reason Foundation and co-authored by Robert Poole, said the first phase of the high-speed rail project could cost $3 billion more than first thought.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who chairs the Commerce and Tourism Committee, brushed aside such criticism as mere “speculation.”
“Right now we’re sticking to facts, not speculation out there,” Detert said.
Gov. Scott has not taken a formal position on the issue since taking the oath of office, but did state as a candidate that he did not support using state money to fund high-speed rail. He met with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara on Saturday to discuss the project, but notably did not address the Tampa-Orlando line in his remarks, whereas the minister spoke at length about the experience of Japanese companies with bullet trains and high-speed rail lines. Scott’s office has stated he is reviewing feasibility studies regarding the project and wants to ensure a return on investment for Florida taxpayers.
Detert said that such fears over whether high-speed rail will make enough money to pay for itself and not saddle taxpayers with an annual subsidy are misplaced.
“When we build eight-lane highways, no one says that that doesn’t pay for itself,” Detert said.
Dockery said she thinks the promise of creating thousands of jobs will overcome the apparent reticence of the self-described “jobs governor,” but also noted that the Legislature doesn’t need to pass any laws this year to move the project forward. Bids for the initial clearing phase for the project are scheduled to be sent out in March.
“(Scott’s) never said he’s opposed to the project,” Dockery said.
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