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Nelson Leans on Scott to Get on Board with Rail

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

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, January 19, 2011 --

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson leaned hard on new Gov. Rick Scott Wednesday to punch the state’s ticket for a high speed rail connecting Tampa and Orlando, particularly since the federal government has offered to pay 90 percent of the cost.

Nelson, a Democrat who will be up for re-election in 2012, spent a large portion of his time Wednesday addressing the annual Associated Press Florida Legislative Planning Session prodding Scott to accept the $2.4 billion for high speed rail, unlike new Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin. Those governors, who like Scott were elected in a GOP tidal wave in 2010, said no to similar offers for high speed rail money.

But a lot more money is on the line for Florida, which Nelson pointed out. Also, the state’s rail plans are further along than almost every state but California.

“We’ve been able to get more than $2.4 billion on the table for a high speed rail system,” he said. “When you look at areas between Tampa and Orlando, you cannot build enough lanes on I-4 to accommodate the projected traffic increases over the next 30 years and there is no parallel road.”

Nelson said he hoped Scott would use his own speech to the newspaper editors to accept the money.

“I’m hopeful that the new governor, who will be here shortly, maybe he’ll come here and announce plans from the state’s standpoint to move ahead with the high speed rail,” he said.

Scott didn’t.

Several Republican leaders, including 2012 Nelson challenger Senate President Mike Haridopolos, have said that while they do not think the state should pay the remaining $280 million for the train, it would be OK if private businesses does.

“This is one that we simply do not want to lose,” Nelson said. “We’ve worked hard to get it where it is and a lot of people have been involved.”

Scott, speaking a short time later, again pegged his decision on accepting the rail money to a feasibility study due in February. He did, however, open the door to the possibility of accepting bids from companies eager to build the rail, which supporters have urged.

“I met with Congressman Mica. He and I are similar in our beliefs,” said Scott, referring to U.S. Rep. John Mica of Florida, chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee. “I want to see the ridership study. I want to see whether it’s going to be profitable or not. It appears that there’s a lot of interest in the private sector to fund that project. I want to understand whether they’re going to fund it and what the terms of that are going to be.”

House Speaker Dean Cannon, who has not spoken publicly about the high speed rail proposal as much as Haridopolos, said after his remarks to same group on Wednesday that he agreed with Scott. However, Cannon, R-Winter Park, whose district is near Orlando, said he and the governor have not spoken about the high speed rail since Scott was sworn-in Jan. 4.

“I haven’t had any conversations with the governor about his concerns (but) I think his concerns are valid,” he said. “I think frankly it’s a very good point that in an era of the budget shortfall we’re facing, it should be first explored whether or not the remaining 10 percent of that project can be done with private money, and until we know the answer to that question, that we not move forward. But I also think that there’s a lot of water to move under the bridge before we see what’s out there.”

In his remarks on Wednesday, however, Nelson framed the question about the high speed rail money differently.

“The question is are we going to do to an alternate form of transportation, one that we are way behind compared to other countries?” he said. “The first leg between Tampa and Orlando is worth over the course of the next five years 24,000 jobs and it will start to remake Florida’s transportation network as local commuter rail can then link into the high speed rail and ultimately the high speed rail can go on to other places.”

However, one of those commuter rails envisioned to connect to the high speed train, a light rail in Hillsborough County, was defeated by voters there.

For his part, Haridopolos acknowledged Wednesday after his speech that the train could become an issue as he mounts a bid to challenge Nelson, a vocal supporter of the project long before Wednesday.

“Bill Nelson and I disagree on the rail issue,” he said. “I think the private sector money is there. If not, we should just send it back to Washington, because we can’t afford $300 million.”

Haridopolos also tweaked Nelson for focusing so much attention on the train, which could emerge as a likely refrain as the nascent Senate race heats up.

“I wish that Sen. Nelson would focus more on NASA,” he said. “He had a ride into space as a congressman. I think that’s where the focus should be, that’s how do you save those NASA jobs, because I think national security is really important.”


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