On Feb. 16, 2011, Florida Gov. Rick Scott joined fellow Republican governors Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and John Kasich (Ohio) in refusing federal high-speed rail funding. In this case, $2.4 billion — all but the local $280 million match required to build an 84-mile true HSR line from downtown Tampa to a soon-to-be-built University of South Florida campus, Disney World, downtown Orlando, and Orlando International Airport.
Scott cited the federal debt and budget deficit and Florida’s own budget woes among his reasons for rejecting the federal money, saying governments must cut spending. He also said capital cost overruns could cost Florida “an additional $3 billion”; ridership projections were overly optimistic, and that the state would have to return the federal funding if the project were begun and then shut down.
“Rather than investing in a high-risk rail project, we should be focusing on improving our ports, rail and highway infrastructure to be in a position to attract the increased shipping that will result when the Panama Canal is expanded when the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama are ratified and with the expansion of the economies of Central and South America,” Scott said.
Scott’s decision was somewhat surprising considering seven teams of private companies from 11 different countries had indicated willingness to pay that local funding and cover operating expenses in the sort of public-private partnership touted by many politicians on both sides of the aisle. But his letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood formally rejecting the HSR funding makes clear Scott favors highway expansion.
The $2.4 billion allocated for Florida's HSR line "are better invested in higher yield projects" including expansions/widenings of I-395 in Miami-Dade County, I-95 down the state’s southern spine, and I-4 where the HSR line is slated to be built. The letter also calls for redirecting HSR funds for a new bridge over Choctawhatchee Bay, and port facility improvements in Jacksonville, Miami, and Port Everglades.
As the Progressive Policy Institute dryly noted, "The fact that all these projects would cost considerably more than the rail line somehow escaped the governor’s request that he and LaHood 'work together' to meet 'the broad array of transportation needs in our state.'"
While local leaders reacted as one might expect — “It’s a terrible decision, truly the worst decision I’ve ever seen by a governor in my 26 years of public life,” Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said in the St. Petersburg Times — the responses from Florida’s state legislators and Congressional delegation indicates there may be bipartisan support for bypassing Scott, if possible.
Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Scott’s decision to cancel the project even before receiving bids “defies logic.” He and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson are examining ways to get the line built regardless, according to the Florida Times-Union.
State Sen. Thad Altman (R-Rockledge) said in a statement, “The action of the Governor to not allow the private sector to make public proposals on high speed rail is not only unfriendly to business but also shows a lack of vision toward new and emerging technologies...Our high-speed rail showcase project is necessary to maintain and grow our tourism industry and economic development.”
In Tallahassee, GOP state Sen. Jack Latavala, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said the governor “cut off our nose to spite our face.” The Orlando Sentinel reported he was one of 26 state senators – the majority of them Republicans – to sign a letter to LaHood asking him to let them figure out a way to move forward with Florida HSR before re-allocating the Sunshine State’s funds to other, more HSR-friendly states.
According to the Miami Herald, LaHood met with Florida's congressional delegation and has given them one week to develop a new strategy to retain the federal funds for the project.