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End of the Line for Florida High-Speed Rail Plans

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UPDATE: On Feb. 28, Florida senators Thad Altman (R ) of Melbourne and Arthenia Joyner (D) of Tampa filed a lawsuit against Gov. Rick Scott that seeks an injunction halting his rejection of $2.4 billion of federal funding for the proposed Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail line.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has again rejected a proposal to build a $2.7-billion high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. The governor rebuffed a last-ditch attempt by local, state and federal officials to address his previously stated concerns over financial risks, thus closing the latest chapter in the state's decades-long drive to build high-speed rail.

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At this time, Gov. Scott has not officially announced his latest rejection of the proposal. However, on Feb. 25 the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times' combined Tallahassee bureau quoted the governor as stating: "I remain convinced that the construction cost overruns, the operating cost risk, the risk that we would give the money back if it's ever shut down, is too much for the taxpayers of the state."

On Feb. 24, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) issued a statement lamenting the governor's action and questioning his rationale. "His claims were hasty and ill-informed when he first announced his  decision a week ago. Today, they’re untrue."

Gov. Scott held to his position despite reassurances from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other state and local officials. A proposal presented to the governor earlier this week would have created a new entity to oversee the project, thus shielding the state from liability. The proposal stated:

"The State of Florida and the local governments creating the entity shall have no liability for the project. The entity shall be non-recourse as to the state and the local government members. The entity shall be established by interested local governments, with initial membership by City of Orlando, City of Tampa, City of Lakeland, and City of Miami."

The proposal also spelled out that any firms vying to build the project must be able to utilize their own financial resources for future maintenance and operations expenses, expressly stating that no further public funding would be available.

"For the project to proceed to construction, the constructing entities/vendor must be willing and able to demonstrate that it can meet the financial obligations required to ensure completion of construction of the project, guarantee operation for the term of the concession, and meet all grant requirements, without any additional public funding."

The federal government had committed approximately $2.4 billion in funding for the estimated $2.7-billion project. Florida transportation officials had stated that the firms vying to build the system would need to fund the difference, plus provide for future operations and maintenance with no further state funding.

The latest proposal put before Gov. Scott confirmed the state's long-held position of not providing additional funding for the project. Nazih Haddad, the Florida Dept. of Transportation manager for passenger rail development, told ENR Southeast in early 2010: "The state would not be putting any kind of monies toward operational deficits. We’re focused on having a (public-private partnership) where the private sector is going to be responsible for the operations of the system and accept the risks associated with the system’s revenue.”

Rick Scott's election as governor in November immediately cast doubts on the project, due to his campaigning against the high-speed rail project. As recently as December, however, FDOT officials were optimistic that the system would ultimately move forward. FDOT's Haddad told ENR Southeast at that time that "We're excited and looking forward to it."

In December, the governor-elect issued the following statement: "I'm pleased that the federal government recognizes that sound infrastructure is key to Florida's economic growth. I look forward to reviewing the feasibility of this project in terms of return to Florida's taxpayers. I’m also interested in understanding the private sector's interest in funding this infrastructure project.”

FDOT had anticipated requesting bids for the Tampa-to-Orlando system later this year, and had planned to move forward in early 2011 on an estimated $170 million in "early works" contracts to prepare the I-4 median for the system by moving signs, demucking wet areas and widening certain sections.

One reason that Florida's planned system had been pushed to the front of the line for federal funding was the state's having already completed environmental studies and its ownership of the vast majority of the right-of-way needed to start construction.

Media outlets were also reporting that lawmakers were considering taking legal action, based on questions over the governor's authority to reject the project. Last year, the Florida legislature enacted a state law authorizing the project and creating an entity to oversee it.

 

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