Senate Pres OK With Rail Rolling, if Biz Picks up the Tab

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

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 12, 2011 --

Despite recent calls for the new governor to put the brakes on high speed rail, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos said Wednesday the project should roll ahead if private investors can come up with the remaining $280 million needed to fund the $2.6 billion system.

Speaking with reporters during a Capitol news conference, Haridopolos said he would not try to stop the Department of Transportation from seeking proposals from companies that have expressed interest in building the train, 90 percent of which would be paid for by the federal government. A bullet train would be nice, Haridopolos conceded, but not on Florida taxpayers’ dime.

“I think high speed rail is something people would like to have,” Haridopolos said. “I would make the argument, and I have made the argument, that it’s something we cannot afford at this time using state dollars. If the private sector chooses to make up that last 10 percent, great, that would be their prerogative.”

Federal officials say the project is the most shovel ready in a nationwide network President Barack Obama envisions will eventually rival the federal interstate highway system.

To that end, supporters of the train have suggested that companies might be willing to close the gap on the $2.6 billion the train is estimated to cost – and assume some of the risk if ridership does not meet expectations – in exchange for building one of the first high speed rails in the country.

Haridopolos said Wednesday that would be fine with him.

“If the last 10 percent is made up by the private sector, then we’ll see high speed rail being done, but I want to see not only the short term, but the long term, the operation and maintenance like we have with SunRail put on the backs of the private sector,” he said.

“What business wouldn’t die for a 90 percent off (deal)? Talk about a tax break,” he continued. “The last 10 percent can be picked up by the private sector if they really believe it’ll be a commercially viable operation.”

Some supporters of the high speed rail project, which would connect Tampa and Orlando, have criticized Haridopolos for supporting one train and not another. Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, noted earlier this week that Haridopolos backed a special session in 2009 to approve legislation that allowed for the purchase of the tracks for SunRail that organizers explicitly tied to winning federal money for the bullet train.

Shortly after that session, U.S. transportation officials announced they were awarding $1.25 billion to Florida for the Tampa-to-Orlando train from the federal economic stimulus, half of the money the project was expected to cost. Since then, the feds have put another $1 billion on the table, bringing Florida's total higher than any other state but California.

Sen. Dockery attributed Haridopolos’ earlier opposition to the state making up the difference to politics, with the Senate president widely believed to be gearing up for U.S. Senate run in 2012. But Haridopolos said Wednesday the two trains were apples and oranges.

“(SunRail) is something I chose to support because it is a mixture of funds,” he said. “It’s federal, state and local. This is a project that has been worked on in Central Florida for over 10 years. It is supported by Republicans and Democrats alike and the local governments and that particular DOT region chose to use some of their road money for rail because they thought it would be very important to that region.”

Of course, many of the same things could be said of the high speed rail project, which was put into the state constitution back in 2000 after a successful political campaign largely funded by Dockery’s husband, Lakeland businessman C.C. Dockery. However, the constitutional amendment mandating the train was undone four years later with the strong backing of former Gov. Jeb Bush, who argued the state could not afford it.

Haridopolos said that history was a key difference between the two trains. Unlike the original high speed proposal, which he opposed, the Sunrail deal calls for Volusia, Seminole and Orange Counties to assume responsibility for operations after the tracks for SunRail are purchased, which was projected in 2009 to cost the state $641 million.

With Gov. Rick Scott not saying much about the train other than that he will make a decision about accepting the federal money only after a February review, Haridopolos’ recent statements about high speed rail have caused quite a stir, even among groups that normally vociferously support Republicans.

Associated Industries of Florida, one of the state's major business lobbies, announced Wednesday it was forming a high-speed rail coalition, which it said would include “private-sector companies that want the jobs, the work and the prestige that will come from being a part of Florida high speed rail.”

“Decisions to abandon the project can always be made further down the road if the conditions are not ideal,” AIF said in a statement. “Right now, we have an opportunity to leverage private investment to secure billions in federal dollars for a project that will have an incredibly positive impact on our state. Let’s not derail high speed rail.”

DOT officials told a Senate panel Tuesday that unless someone says otherwise, requests for proposals on construction projects necessary to build the high speed train would be released in March. If the proposal is not stopped in its tracks after they come, contractors would be selected in 2011 and construction would begin in 2012.
Supporters have said the train could begin running in 2015.


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