THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Dec. 9, 2010 --
Rail backers in Florida celebrated receiving more of the final money needed to build a long-sought bullet train along the I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa Thursday, which was awarded to Florida from grants given originally to other states that have backed away from rail projects.
There have been objections to rail from newly-elected leaders in Florida like Gov.-elect Rick Scott too, but Scott has said he was opposed to the state paying for the train, not the proposal itself. With this latest award, $342.3 million, Florida will have received from Washington the full $2.6 billion that former Gov. Jeb Bush once used to successfully argue the train was too expensive.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Orlando, said it should be enough to ensure the train, which was added to the state constitution in 2000 but removed in 2004, is actually built.
“Additional federal funding for the new Orlando to Tampa passenger rail link should ensure the project’s chance for successful completion,” said Mica, who is in line to chair the U.S. House’s Transportation Committee when Republicans assume control there next month.
Newly-elected Republican governors in states like Wisconsin and Ohio said after the November elections that they did not want to build rail projects in their states, which led directly to Florida’s windfall Thursday. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood notified the states that the rail money did not have to be used, but it could not be re-allocated to other areas in the cash-strapped states’ budgets, even transportation projects like roads and highways.
Rail supporters in Florida have worried that could happen here with the dawn of the Scott administration, which he has promised would be much more conservative than Gov. Charlie Crist. The outgoing chief executive has vocally supported rail, but some activists of the political Tea Party in Florida, which flexed its muscles by powering Scott’s rise and Crist’s defeat in the U.S. Senate race, have urged the governor-elect to halt all rail projects in Florida - federal investment notwithstanding.
However, thus far Scott has only said he would study the “feasibility” of the rail project. But Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday that with the federal government providing almost all of the money for the train, there was not much left to study.
“The federal government has stepped up and done its part,” Nelson said. “There should be no reason now why this can’t get done.”
Scott’s Fort Lauderdale-based transition did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.
If Scott does not put the brakes on the train by returning the money, supporters have said it could begin running in 2015. Even before other states’ loss became Florida’s rail gain, the Tampa to Orlando bullet had clearly emerged as a preferred cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s stated plan to build a high speed rail network that rivals the federal interstate highway system.
When Obama announced awards for $8 billion in the 2009 federal economic stimulus, which the latest redirect comes from, he gave a nationally-televised speech in central Florida.
Florida received $1.25 billion of the original $8 billion, second only to California’s take away. This fall, the Federal Railroad Administration gave Florida another $800 million, bringing the federal investment in the project over $2 billion.
Mica said the third award for the project in almost two years showed “a strong commitment will help make certain that the state and local community governments and taxpayers are not left on the hook for completing construction or subsidizing future operational costs.”
“It is now essential that the private sector step up to the plate and submit proposals that cover any gap in funding the balance of the estimated $2.7 billion mega-project,” he said.
Mica also alluded to a recently defeated light rail proposal in Hillsborough County that supporters envision connecting to the high speed train, saying that Orlando may be further along in its overall development of rail than the city the money awarded Wednesday will be used to connect it to.
A proposed light rail in Hillsborough County was soundly defeated in November when voters there overwhelmingly rejected a countywide transportation tax that would have funded the train and expanded bus service in Tampa. The measure¸ which was projected to raise $180 million for transportation initiatives in the area, was strongly backed by business groups and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. But it was soundly defeated, with 58 percent of the county electorate voting no.
“While passenger levels on the new rail system from the Orlando Airport to the tourist area and Disney World are expected to produce substantial revenue, and while today’s announcement should ensure construction of the entire system, passenger service to Tampa may need to be added incrementally as the Tampa Bay area develops a future fixed transit regional distribution system,” Mica said.