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Scott's rejection of high speed rail hands win to tea party and defeat to some GOP allies

In a major victory for the tea party movement and a defeat for many of his GOP supporters, Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday that he will reject $2.4 billion in federal money to pay for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando.

"Government has become addicted to spending beyond its means and we cannot continue this flawed policy," Scott said at a hastily-called press conference this morning.

After announcing his state budget proposal at a tea party rally in Eustis, Scott met with a pair of tea party leaders in his office for 30 minutes last week. Their top priority: derail the high-speed rail project.

Scott's decision drew immediate rebukes from Democratic lawmakers and the Republican chairman of the Congressional Transportation Committee, U.S. Rep. John Mica, who said he was "deeply disappointed' in Scott's decision.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, who worked last year to include the Tampa to Orlando high speed rail line, issued a statement but did not respond to the governor's decision.

“I'm encouraged that he is focusing on the practical realities of government programs, and their long-term impacts,'' Cannon said in a statement, noting that he hadn't spoken to the governor about the issue. "As the Constitutional officer charged with carrying out transportation policy, the Governor seems to have determined that at this time he cannot feasibly implement high-speed rail in Florida.  I have confidence that he will bring the same level of scrutiny to other issues.”

Scott said his decision was based on "three main economic realities":

  • First – capital cost overruns from the project could put Florida taxpayers on the hook for an additional $3 billion.
  • Second – ridership and revenue projections are historically overly-optimistic and would likely result in ongoing subsidies that state taxpayers would have to incur. (from $300 million - $575 million over 10 years) – Note: The state subsidizes Tri-Rail $34.6 million a year while passenger revenues covers only $10.4 million of the $64 million annual operating budget.
  • Finally – if the project becomes too costly for taxpayers and is shut down, the state would have to return the $2.4 billion in federal funds to D.C.

"The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits," Scott said.

Many of Scott's early supporters, including Lakeland Sen. Paula Dockery, had urged the governor to keep an open mind about the project as they sought private companies to finance the state portion of the project. Scott said that his conversations with those companies failed to dissuade him that, if something went wrong, the state would still be obligated to pay the federal government $2.4 billion. 

Rep. Hazelle Rogers, a Lauderdale Lakes Democrat, called Scott's decision a "jobs-killing'' development.

“Designing and constructing the proposed Tampa to Orlando high-speed rail project that federal and state agencies recommended would create thousands of needed jobs and help rebuild our state’s economy,'' Rogers said in a statement. “Transportation modernization helps Florida compete in the ever-growing global economy. I’m appalled by Governor Scott’s shortsighted thinking and his decision to choose politics and ideology over job creation for Florida."

-- Michael C. Bender contributed to this report