Tallahassee, FL - While backers rallied Monday in Tampa and officials in Washington continued working on plans that did not involve state approval, Gov. Rick Scott reiterated his objection to accepting federal money for high speed rail in central Florida, even if the state is not involved.
And the effort by lawmakers to go around Scott’s objection was weakened when one of the 26 state senators who signed a letter opposing Scott’s move changed his mind. Twenty-six was a veto-proof number in the Senate, but with the defection of Sen. Greg Evers, that’s no longer the case.
But even so, Scott told reporters Monday in Tallahassee that he was doubtful a plan could emerge that would satisfy his concerns over the long-sought Tampa-to-Orlando project, for which the federal government had offered to pay $2.4 billion of the roughly $2.7 billion projected cost.
“As you know, I’ve said all along I don’t believe that there is anyway the taxpayers of the state should be on the hook for the operational cost of that or for the risks if it gets shut down,” Scott said Monday. “I don’t see any way to do that.”
Over the weekend, rail advocates had hoped that Scott was leaving the door open to the possibility of allowing them to accept the money. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said the Democrat came away from a joint appearance with Scott at the Daytona 500 convinced the governor would at least look at the plans being crafted.
However, Scott appeared Monday to put the horse back in the barn.
"Despite efforts by many to re-open the door to high speed rail, my position has not changed,” he posted on his Facebook page, on which he has almost 60,000 friends.
Meanwhile, Evers, R-Baker, said he regretted signing the letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week that suggested that two statewide rail panels set up by the Legislature could accept the $2.4 billion Scott rejected.
“As a representative of the people of Florida Senate District 2, I do hereby remove my signature on the letter you received on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, regarding funding for High Speed Rail,” Evers wrote to LaHood. “Let me be very clear. I do not want to spend one dime on High Speed Rail and I absolutely support Gov. Scott sending the money back. I regret signing the letter as I believe it misconstrued my position on High Speed Rail.
“I was trying to send a message to Gov. Scott to bring to the forefront my firm belief that we should not fund any rail projects with state or federal money,” Evers concluded.
Evers also suggested that Scott put the brakes on a separate proposed commuter train in Orlando, SunRail, which the governor has said he is currently reviewing. Without Evers on board, lawmakers in the Florida Senate lose the implied possibility of overriding a veto of any rail legislation or budget line items they pass.
However, another plan emerged Monday that would not involve lawmakers in Tallahassee at all. The plan, which U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor detailed to reporters, would call for the creation of a new independent agency with representatives from the local jurisdictions that would house the proposed 84-mile train.
A separate plan from Orlando Congressman John Mica, the chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, would have called for the first leg of the train to be shortened to 21 miles between the Orlando Airport to the city’s convention center and Disney World to prove the viability of the train to Scott. That plan appeared to never get rolling with U.S. transportation officials, however.
An afternoon “Rally for Rail” in Tampa was said to have drawn about 200 people, though opponents of the project ran a counter-rally to convince Scott to stand firm against the project. The event was co-sponsored by former Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena and the Livable Tampa Roundtable group.