[UPDATE] High Speed Rail Money Up For Grabs

By: Mike Vasilinda; The News Service of Florida; AP Email
By: Mike Vasilinda; The News Service of Florida; AP Email

[UPDATE] 3-14 8:26am --

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Friday said he’s making available $2.4 billion in high speed rail money previously earmarked for Florida to anyone who wants to develop high-speed rail corridors across the United States. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, immediately followed the announcement with one of his own, saying LaHood’s decision makes the funds available to cities, counties and other Florida groups to apply for the cash, which was rejected earlier this month by Gov. Rick Scott. LaHood said applicants would be judged on project merit and the ability “to deliver public and economic benefits quickly.” Applications are due by April 4. Following a conversation with LaHood, Nelson sent out a statement saying the secretary assured him that a regional rail authority could compete for funds, an assurance that could allow local government groups to back the Tampa to Orlando route without Scott’s approval. “Florida’s chances are alive, thanks to Secretary LaHood,” Nelson said in a statement. “Secretary LaHood said it’s possible for ‘a Florida transit group’ to apply. That means hope is alive for thousands of good-paying jobs and a modernized transportation system.”

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[UPDATE] 3-4 10am --

The Florida Supreme Court has rejected a petition from two state senators seeking to force the state to accept high speed rail money.
With the court siding with Gov. Rick Scott, the state has again turned down the federal money.

Statement from Gov. Scott's Office:

The Governor is gratified that the court provided a clear and unanimous decision, he is now focused on moving forward with infrastructure projects that create long-term jobs and turn Florida’s economy around. He also spoke with US DOT Secretary LaHood this morning and informed him that Florida will focus on other infrastructure projects and will not move forward with any federal high speed rail plan.

Statement from Sen. Nelson's Office:

“It’s unfortunate that the Supreme Court has thrown out the FL legislators’ attempt to stay the hand of the governor of returning $2.4 billion of federal grant money to build our HSR system,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. “It’s unfortunate for the state because we could remake our transportation system that is now built on an interstate system that gets so clogged at rush hour and you can imagine what it’s going be like 20 and 30 years from now. And it’s unfortunate for the 24,000 people that will not have these jobs in the next few years.”

The court ruling is attached above.

Stay with WCTV for updates.

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[UPDATE] 3-3 10:15am --

The state’s high court will hear arguments on March 3 over whether Gov. Rick Scott had the right to tell the U.S. Department of Transportation no thanks to $2.4 billion in federal dollars for a high speed rail line.

The arguments two days after two state senators – one from each party - filed a lawsuit against the governor set the stage for the first legal showdown between the new governor and the Legislature, which has jousted with Scott on a couple of issues.

Sens. Thad Altman, R-Viera, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, asked the state’s high court Tuesday to block the governor’s decision to scuttle a state plan to build a high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa, nearly a year after former Gov. Charlie Crist accepted the money on behalf of the state and state officials began to plan how to use the money.

The two senators argued that the governor does not have the legal authority to unilaterally reject the money because the Legislature has already appropriated some of it, which was signed off on by Crist.

But Scott struck back in a legal response filed with the court Wednesday, saying that the two lawmakers filed the suit because their policy view had not prevailed.

“Governor Scott has announced, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms, his determination that the high-speed rail project is not wise policy and that it will ultimately prove detrimental to the taxpayers of this state,” his lawyers wrote in their brief. “This is a decision, by virtue of his election and his constitutional authority, that the governor is entitled to make.”
Scott’s lawyers also contended that for the court to side with Altman and Viera, the justices would have to order the Legislature to specifically appropriate the remaining funds and order the governor not to veto the legislation.

“It goes without saying that such an unprecedented order would render the separation-of-powers doctrine utterly meaningless,” the brief said.

Altman and Joyner countered in a response brief that the governor’s office had “set up a fake argument just in order to tear it down.” The two said at a press conference Tuesday that the governor, in rejecting the money, was essentially violating the separation of powers. Joyner said he was acting like a “king” in overriding the Legislature’s wishes.

“In the present case, the Legislature expressly set forth in the Florida Rail Act the public policy of this state regarding high speed rail,” their lawyer wrote in the argument filed with the court. Scott “has, by his own admission in his response, admitted that he does not intend to comply with the procedures and directives of the Florida Rail Act.”

Not all lawmakers have been supportive of the high speed rail initiative. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who initially supported the project, backed down following Scott’s election because the federal cash only covered about 90 percent of the estimated cost of the project.

He said in a statement following the filing of the lawsuit Tuesday that the full Senate would not join the lawsuit and reiterated his concerns with the cost of the train.

A Supreme Court decision in favor of Altman and Viera may not be enough to keep the money in Florida though. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to give the court time to deliberate the lawsuit, but LaHood is under pressure from other states to shift the cash to other rail projects around the country. New York and California, in particular, are likely candidates to receive the money for their rail projects, though several New England senators have said that the money could also be used to improve existing rail lines in those states.

And Scott, in a television interview Wednesday in New York, said he hasn’t been convinced that there’s anyway backers of the train can build it without the state somehow being involved.

“They’ve not shown me anything that leads me to believe that we’re not still on the hook,” Scott said in the interview with CNBC.

The case will be heard at 3 p.m. at the Supreme Court in Tallahassee.

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[UPDATE] 3-2 1:24pm -- TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) --

Gov. Rick Scott has filed a sharply worded response to a lawsuit challenging his refusal to accept $2.4 billion in federal money for the Tampa-Orlando high speed rail project.

Scott's response filed Wednesday begins by saying two state
senators asked the court to step in after their "policy
preferences have not prevailed in the political process."

State Sens. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, and Thad Altman,
a Viera Republican, contend Florida law gives Scott no choice but
to accept the stimulus funding.

Scott says he won't do it because Florida taxpayers may be stuck
with billions in cost overruns and subsidies.

The governor has until Friday to accept a revised plan for local
management designed to absolve the state of liability.

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[UPDATE] 3-2 8:50am --

Gov. Rick Scott responded to a lawsuit against him by Sens. Thad Altman, R-Viera, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, by saying the petition shows their “disrespect for taxpayers.” Scott rejected the state’s claim to $2.4 billion in high speed rail cash last month, but several lawmakers have sought a way to work around the governor to bring the money into the state to build a high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa. Altman and Joyner filed a petition at the state Supreme Court Tuesday asking the court to block Scott from rejecting the money. Scott said the lawsuit has not changed his mind about the train dollars. “My position remains unchanged, he said in a prepared statement. “I’ve yet to see any evidence that Florida taxpayers would not be on the hook. Senators Altman and Joyner’s disrespect for taxpayers is clear by their lawsuit trying to force the state to spend this money.”

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Tallahassee, FL - The lawsuit was filed in the Florida Supreme Court, asking the court to immediately order the governor to accept federal funds to build a high speed rail system. State Senator Arthenia Joyner says the Governor overstepped his authority when he tried to kill the project.

Senator Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, says, "This is not a monarchy. He's not a king. This is a democracy, and that there are three co-equal independent branches of government."

The bi-partisan lawsuit argues the legislature appropriated money for high speed rail, set up a funding mechanism, and Governor Rick Scott doesn't have the authority to overturn existing law or give money back to the federal government that'ss already been accepted by a previous Governor.

Senator Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, says, " We just hope that the Governor gets out of the way of innovation and allow Floridians to pursue this wonderful technology. I think it will pay great dividends."

The Governor has said repeatedly that he doesn't believe there is a way to keep taxpayers off the hook for the money so even if the Senators prevail in their lawsuit there may be no way to bring the Governor to the dance.

And while there may be no way to make the governor allow the use of right of way, Arthenia Joyner says first things first.

"If we get the money then I think everything else will fall in place. This is a very important project."

After Scott refused the money, the Feds originally gave the state a week to make a deal work, then they extended it another week. Now rail backers are asking for more time until the lawsuit is settled.

The Florida Supreme Court has given the governor until tomorrow (3-2) afternoon to reply to the suit.


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