ORLANDO – Turning down a project that city leaders from Orlando to Lakeland had touted as being vital to the region’s future, Gov. Rick Scott stuck to his campaign pledge and turned down federal funding for a high speed rail project across Central Florida.
On Wednesday, Scott informed U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that his office would reject President Obama’s federal funding to help pay for a high speed train that would have run from Cocoa Beach to Orlando and then on to Tampa.
The governor said the state simply couldn’t afford such a costly project at a time when Florida is being forced to make steep cuts in spending.
“As you know, I was elected to get Floridians back to work and to change the way government does business in our state. I am committed to making good on those promises,” Scott said.
The governor noted that his recent budget proposal to the legislature calls for cuts in spending, including $3 billion in cuts to education alone.
Reducing that spending, he said, “reduces the costs of that government and passes those cost savings on to taxpayers so that we can create new jobs and turn Florida’s economy around. I believe when you reduce government’s reach and hold that government accountable, you create an environment where the economy can flourish.’
That includes reducing taxes, the governor said, so Floridians will spend that money on local businesses that create private sector jobs.
The governor criticized the Obama administration for taking the opposite approach and unveiling a $3.73 trillion budget that includes $1.6 trillion in higher taxes.
“Those higher taxes will impact Floridians and our competitiveness worldwide,” Scott said. “We cannot expect individuals to build businesses in America if our taxes are higher than other countries. Higher taxes and more government spending is a recipe for disaster. Government has become addicted to spending beyond its means and we cannot continue this flawed policy.”
With that in mind, Scott said, he was “announcing my decision to reject the Obama administration’s plan to partially-fund the costly Tampa to Orlando high-speed rail project.”
The Obama administration had offered the state $2.4 billion to help start this project, as part of the federal stimulus bill. President Obama has supported the idea of bringing high speed rail systems to 80 percent of the nation.
But Scott said he was rejecting the project because capital cost overruns could “put Florida taxpayers on the hook for an additional $3 billion,” and that ridership and revenue projections were likely to be “overly-optimistic and would likely result in ongoing subsidies that state taxpayers would have to incur.” It could rise from $300 million to $575 million over 10 years, Scott noted.
The governor also warned that “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. Historical data shows capital cost overruns are pervasive in nine out of 10 high speed rail projects.”
A better option, the governor said, would be “focusing on improving our ports, rail and highway infrastructure.”
The governor’s announcement drew mixed reactions.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, issued a statement saying he was “deeply disappointed” by the governor’s decision, and he called it “a huge setback for the state of Florida, our transportation, economic development, and important tourism industry.”
Last June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued its report on The Economic Impact of High-Speed Rail on Cities and their Metropolitan Areas during a special session hosted by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.
The report endorsed federal funding for high-speed intercity passenger rail service, noting the economic impact of high-speed rail on four cities, including Orlando. The report indicated high speed rail could bring those cities $16 billion in new business revenue and 150,000 new jobs.
But opponents of the project said the governor made the right call.
The Ax the Rail Coalition — consisting of Ax the Tax, the Florida Tea Party, Florida Taxpayers Union and dozens of tea party movement organizations – called the high speed rail project a “boondoggle” that deserved to be defeated.
“This is great news for taxpayers and Governor Scott deserves the thanks of Florida’s beleaguered taxpayers, but more work is still to be done,” said Doug Guetzloe, chairman of Ax the Tax.
Guetzloe said their next target would be SunRail, the 61-mile commuter rail project that would run from Volusia County to downtown Orlando and then on to the Poinciana Industrial Park.
“We must now redouble our efforts to kill off the SunRail commuter rail boondoggle,” said Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party.
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