Buffeted by business interests and political hardball, Gov. Rick Scott is near a decision to approve the SunRail commuter train project for Central Florida, sources tell Sunshine State News.
After rejecting $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funds and derailing a proposed Tampa-Orlando high-speed train, the governor has reportedly turned around on SunRail, a $1.3 billion line that would serve parts of four counties around Orlando.
State Sen. Paula Dockery said Scott will approve the 61-mile venture for three reasons:
- "He's not applying the same test" to SunRail that he did to high-speed rail -- cost to state, ridership, maintenance and potential overruns.
- "He has hired too many former CSX execs who are pushing it."
- "It's not anti-Obama."
Dockery campaigned for Scott during the GOP primary after abandoning her own gubernatorial bid and served on the governor's transition team. But the Lakeland Republican has diverged on transit issues as she supported high-speed rail and opposed SunRail.
Two other insiders -- a member of the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission and an elected state official, both of whom declined to be named -- also predict that the governor will green-light the project.
SunRail's critics remain hopeful that Scott will conclude that it, like high-speed rail, is just another out-of-control spending train.
"The voters never approved a funding source for the 99-year term of the project," says Beth Dillaha, who heads Veto SunRail. "Operations and maintenance projections by FDOT are based upon a 50 percent plus fare box revenue, which is highly optimistic."
Dillaha, a former Winter Park city commissioner, said the project railroads taxpayers with ballooning costs and liability issues while rolling over for CSX.
Dockery has asserted that the initial price tag for the 61-mile corridor to the public is "10 times" market value.
"The state will pay $641 million in total compensation (for the CSX tracks) and the state will provide operations and maintenance funding for the first seven years of operation," Dillaha's group reported in a position paper.
The federal role in SunRail funding is somewhat murky.
According to financial agreements for the project, Washington is supposed to commit $300 million -- 50 percent of the up-front capital costs. But only $40 million was in the president's fiscal 2011 budget and $50 million is earmarked for 2012.
That could leave the state's taxpayers -- particularly those taxpayers in Central Florida -- on the hook.
"High-speed rail was President Obama's train. SunRail is the Republicans' train," says Matthew Falconer, an Orlando-based commercial real-estate owner who ran for Orange County mayor last year.
Scott deferred his decision on SunRail until after the 2011 legislative session -- a delay some said was designed to keep the Central Florida Republican delegation in check.
Immediately after the session, Associated Industries of Florida, one of the heavy hitters in the business community, turned up the heat by issuing a statement reiterating its support for SunRail.
Jose Gonzalez, AIF's vice president for governmental affairs, said the train project would create 11,500 jobs.
Jobs -- along with the support of the business community -- top Scott's agenda.
Meanwhile in Washington, House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has been turning the screws to ensure that SunRail moves forward.
He obtained approval of a "technical corrections bill exempting SunRail from potentially nettlesome cost-effectiveness criteria in federal regulations, and he has subtly hinted that federal funds for the Port of Miami project could be at risk if Scott fails to approve SunRail.
Scott has committed $77 million in state funds to dredge the Port of Miami, but that's only about half the total cost. Mica is in a position to make up the difference.
"I get to authorize the project for the deepening at the federal level," the congressman told WMFE Radio last month.
"Right now Im studying them very closely as the governor is studying the rail project very closely, and Ill make my decision in June, about the time he makes his decision."
Neither Mica nor Scott was immediately available to comment on the situation.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.