Obama Talks Rail in D.C., But Not in Florida

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

Tallahassee, FL - When President Barack Obama spoke about high speed rail in his State of the Union address this week, he pointedly left out Florida.

“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car,” Obama said in his address to Congress Tuesday night. “For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.”

Supporters are hoping that Obama’s reticence, and skepticism by leading Republicans including Gov. Rick Scott and Senate President Mike Haridopolos - will spur private companies to up the ante to make sure there is a high-speed rail for them to build.

Obama’s comments Tuesday night were a far cry from the day after his 2009 State of the Union speech, when he spoke to the nation from the Bob Martinez Sports Center at the University of Tampa.

“We are going to start building a new high-speed rail line right here in Tampa, building for the future, putting people to work,” Obama said as he announced Florida’s initial award of $1.25 billion. “I'm excited. I'm going to come back down here and ride it.”

Since then, the ride for the rail project has been rough. Obama’s administration has offered up another $1 billion for the train with the hopes of creating a close-to-fruition example of his rail vision. But also since then, Scott and Haridopolos have come to power. They have said the only way the train would roll was if the state did not have to pay anything for it.

Backers say the private companies will put up the money - and then some. Scott and Haridopolos’ skepticism about the project could be part of the reason why.

“I have the impression that some of these private consortiums are going to put more than $280 million,” Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, told the News Service of Florida this week.

Since taking office, Scott has met in Tallahassee with Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, who made the case for companies in his country building the train. Maehara told Scott that Japan would help provide financing for the bullet train through the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation, a government -run bank that could provide equity and loans for up to 60 percent of project costs for the $2.6 billion system.

Dockery said there were seven groups of companies eyeing the rail project, and they may make more generous offers than they otherwise would have to make sure it happens.

“It’s almost being treated as this is news that private industry is going to come up with the money. Private industry has been saying that for eight months,” she said. “It’s just a matter of let’s put out the requests for qualifications.”

Haridopolos, R-Merritt Landing, has acknowledged recently that the private sector could pick up the rest of the tab for the train, even as he has repeatedly said he thinks the state cannot afford even the reduced cost brought about by the federal governments amped up assistance.

"I think the private sector money is there,” he said last week. “If not, we should just send it back to Washington, because we can't afford $300 million."

“The private sector is getting a 90 percent discount on the construction of this project,” a spokesman for Haridopolos explained further in an e-mail to the News Service Wednesday. “They ought to be able to pay the state’s portion and the maintenance costs.”

Scott’s office did not immediately comment on rail Wednesday, though he has said he would not make any decision on the project until he sees a feasibility study that is due in February.


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