ORLANDO – It’s a project that could help transform Central Florida’s economy, bringing thousands of badly needed construction jobs to the area, while relieving traffic congestion on Ilocal highways and creating a network of alternative transportation options …
No, it’s a costly and wasteful boondoggle, one that will saddle Florida taxpayers with expensive long term maintenance costs that the state can’t afford, all for a train that nobody will bother riding …
As 2011 starts, the debate over a high speed bullet train from Cocoa Beach to Orlando and then on to Tampa rages on, and it’s going to be up to new Gov. Rick Scott to make the final decision on the project. Scot was a skeptic of the high speed rail system during his gubernatorial campaign last year, and his political supporters are counting on the governor to kill a project they view as costing far too much money, while offering too little in the way of a payback.
“We do not want him to be endorsing the rail program,” said Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, which endorsed Scott in last year’s Republican primary. Scott, a South Florida businessman, defeated former state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the August 2010 primary.
Doug Guetzloe, host of The Guetzloe Report radio talk show and a longtime critic of the train, said the governor may have no choice but to kill the high speed rail project, since the state is facing a huge budget deficit due to declining tax revenues.
“Scott’s got an estimated $3.5 billion budget deficit in this fiscal year,” Guetzloe said. “He’s either got to cut spending or raise revenues, that’s all you can do.”
Since the governor has pledged not to raise taxes and to look for ways to cut them further to help spur the economy, Guetzloe said that means steep cuts in state spending.
“Our Constitution requires a balanced budget,” he said. “Where do you get the money without raising taxes? He says he won’t raise taxes, but those are very serious cuts. He could start by turning down money for rail.”
In 2009, the Obama administration signed on to the construction of a high speed line between Orlando and Tampa, using funding from the federal stimulus bill. After announcing the administration’s support for the project, the Federal Railroad Administration granted Florida $1.25 billion to help build the train route.
But critics say Florida will still have to fund the rest of the construction costs, along with the long term maintenance bill as well.
“There’s no source of funding for the operating costs,” Dunmire said. “And we’re getting this money from the federal government – which doesn’t have the money to begin with.”
Dunmire and Guetzloe noted that last November, voters in Osceola, Polk and Hillsborough counties voted down ballot referendums that would have raised taxes to pay for road building projects or new or expanded public transportation systems. While those votes could simply be viewed as an anti-tax message, Dunmire said, it also signals skepticism about people giving up their cars to take a train on a fixed route to their jobs, health care providers or shopping needs.
“It’s the wrong technology,” she said. “Americans like their cars. We like to decide when to go, and where.”
But the project’s supporters think Scott will ultimately get behind it.
Paul Senft, director of the Economic Development Council in Haines City and a strong supporter of the high speed train, said new Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio came to the Sunshine State’s rescue by turning down federal money for rail projects. That freed up more than a billion dollars in federal stimulus money, and shortly afterwards, the White House diverted another $342 million to Florida.
“The fact that some other states reejected the funds and Florida picked up a tremendous amount of extra money, that helped a lot because the local investment became smaller,” Senft said. “The construction cost has become smaller and smaller as the federal government has given us more and more money. I think we’ll be in good shape on the high speed rail.”
Senft has been supporting the rail line because it would include stops at Walt Disney World, about 20 minutes from Haines City, and in Lakeland, the largest city in Polk County. He believes communities like Haines City can sell themselves to businesses interested in relocating to the region by reminding employers of the easy access workers would have to rail.
“There’s not any regions in the world that are truly economic regions that don’t have mass transit,” Senft said. “It will help us, image-wise, and with higher wage jobs.”
But Guetzloe countered that the high speed train will ultimately cost the state far more in the long run than the federal investment suggests, and he said Scott risks burdening the state with a massive long term price tag if he signs on to the project.
“It’s an unfunded liability,” Guetzloe said. “We don’t have $17.6 billion in the next 20 years to operate the train. I think he (Scott) will be hard pressed to flip on that one.”
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