Fla. Bullet Train Likely at End of the Line

By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida
By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 22, 2011 --

Though he has expressed dismay that Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for high speed rail in Florida without consulting him, the chairman of Senate Transportation Committee said Tuesday he thinks the governor’s “No” may be the last stop for the long-sought train connecting Tampa and Orlando.

Sen. Jack Latvala said there likely would not be a legislative solution to accepting the money without Scott’s approval, even though he still supports the proposed 168 mile-per-hour train and signed a letter to U.S. transportation officials last week asking for more time to work around Scott’s objection.

What would have been a bipartisan group of 26 Florida senators wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggesting the Passenger Rail Commission and Rail Enterprise could accept the cash, though one of those lawmakers later rescinded his signature. But even after hearing a presentation from the rail commission Tuesday, Latvala said “the only live prospect out there” was local governments partnering to accept the money.

“I don’t think it’ll come to the state,” Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, told the News Service of Florida. “It might be some kind of agreement that waives liability from the state.”

But even that possibility might not see the light at the end of the tunnel, Latvala added, saying “I’m not optimistic.”

Florida was given a week to create a plan to accept the money before its rail money is given away to other states. California and New York have already expressed interest in receiving the $2.4 billion if Florida does not want it.

Perhaps coloring Latvala’s pessimism, Scott has continued to stand firm in his opposition to accepting the cash. Scott told reporters after a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday that South Florida’s Tri-Rail showed him that rail supporters like Latvala would not be able to produce a plan that did not involve the state taking a financial risk.

“If you look at ridership studies, there’s no way in the world we’re not going to have operational losses,” Scott said before mentioning the existing commuter rail in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. “Tri-rail has almost $65 million in operating cost. The fares only cover $10 million of it….so each of you as taxpayers, you help subsidize it to the tune of $35 million a year.

“If you look at the risk of cost overruns (and) ridership studies, if we make a mistake and we’re wrong, we have to give $2.4 billion back to the federal government, it’s not worth the risk,” Scott continued. “I want to focus on ports, highways and logistics. That’s what going to change and create private sector jobs.”

Still, Florida Assistant Transportation Secretary for Engineering and Operations Kevin Thibault said Tuesday that the department was going to complete a pair of ridership studies that Scott previously said the he was interested in – but hasn’t seen yet because they’re not finished.

“Obviously we’re working with our federal partners as well because they’ve paid for funding the studies,” said Thibault, who runs the Florida Rail Enterprise.

Thibault said the DOT or the Rail Enterprise wouldn’t comment on any of the possible work-arounds being floated, even though one of them involves the enterprise itself.

“We haven’t been involved in it at all,” Thibault said of proposals that have been floated to get the federal money to Florida without the governor’s OK.

Meanwhile, the senator who backtracked on his opposition to Scott’s decision said Tuesday that signed and then unsigned a letter seeking to undercut Scott on purpose.

The purpose was to let Scott know that he needed to work with the Legislature on rail plans involving state money, like the proposed SunRail commuter train in Orlando.

“I think the letter explained it about as well as it could be explained,” said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker. “Here the governor is saying that he’s wanting to give back the money to the feds. Well, I didn’t have a problem with that up until the point that he’s wanting us to spend more state money on SunRail. I took issue with that, so in my way, I was sending a message to the governor.”


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