Florida high-speed rail rescue fails

Members of Congress tried to rescue the proposed Florida high-speed rail project, after Governor Rick Scott declined $2.4bn in federal high-speed rail funds last week. But Scott rejected the proposed rescue plans.

Florida Governor Rick Scott has put an end to proposals to rescue his state’s high-speed rail funds, potentially dealing a final blow to a $2.4 billion pot of federal money that could have enabled public-private partnerships for the state’s rail infrastructure.

Florida politicians, including John Mica, a Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had tried to find ways to recapture the federal funds following Scott’s decision last week to decline the high-speed rail grants, but Scott said yesterday he continued to believe the project was not viable.

Scott’s decision effectively killed the 84-mile Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail project, the Florida high-speed rail segment furthest along in its planning and development.

Immediately following Scott’s decision, Mica proposed a “partial project rescue plan” that would recuperate a 21-mile stretch connecting Orlando’s airport to Disney World, a major tourist attraction. 

Under Mica’s plan, three local sub-grantees would solicit private sector to design, build, finance, maintain, and operate the rail project. The federal government would help finance the project “up to an agreed upon funding amount”, according to his plan.

Mica said the 21-mile project “holds the potential for not only being a viable project, but one that could turn a profit with a qualified operator”.

Chip Fletcher, a city attorney for the City of Tampa Attorney’s Office who was involved in negotiations with legal staff in the governor’s office, said he understood Mica’s proposal “was not well-received by the US Department of Transportation”. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had set a deadline of today for a rescue plan that would keep the funds with Florida.

The City of Tampa, in partnership with Miami and other cities, proposed its own rescue plan. The cities urged the creation of an “interlocal entity” that would request bids from private operators for the entire 84-mile segment, not just the 21 miles in Mica’s plan. The private operator would be responsible for cost overruns, according to the plan.

Scott said a major reason he rejected the plan was that he didn’t want to put cash-strapped Florida on the hook for future liabilities resulting from cost overruns not covered by the federal high-speed rail grants. But by yesterday afternoon, Scott began telling media outlets that he had not been swayed by alternate proposals.  

“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,” Scott said to the St. Petersburg Times. 

Scott’s decision remains contested. Mica said in a statement he intends “to salvage millions of dollars already expended and years of study” on the 21-mile stretch he championed in his rescue plan.

“I intend to reassess the project and work with local partners to continue seeking a federal and local solution in building this infrastructure project,” Mica added.

If the $2.4 billion in high-speed rail grants cannot be rescued, it is unlikely Florida will see the money come back in another form. Scott had  asked LaHood the transportation secretary, to let him use the money on port and rail projects. LaHood said the money would likely be redistributed to other states with high-speed rail programmes.

Prior to Florida’s decision, a total of $1.2 billion of unwanted high-speed rail grants from Wisconsin and Ohio was redistributed to other states in proportion to their original awards from  President Obama’s $8 billion high-speed rail programme introduced in the 2009 stimulus bill. Florida was the second largest recipient of the redistributed funds, following California.

Florida’s decision could further benefit California, which has already received an additional $624 million for its 800-mile high-speed rail system thanks to other states refusal to use the money. The state now has the money necessary to begin construction of the first, 120-mile portion of the system.