Fla. Governor Rejects High-Speed Rail Funds

Florida Governor Rick Scott has rejected $2 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail, dealing a blow to a controversial Obama administration initiative.

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Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott said yesterday that he's giving back more than $2 billion in federal funds aimed at building a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa. Federal money would have paid some 90 percent of the cost, but Scott said still would be too risky for taxpayers.

From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: When President Obama announced he was making $8 billion available for high-speed rail, Florida's former governor, Charlie Crist, enthusiastically lobbied for the funds. Florida received $2.4 billion and began moving forward with plans for the nation's first high-speed rail line. But then came the election.

Newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio announced they were rejecting the federal dollars. Yesterday, in Tallahassee, Florida's new governor, Rick Scott, announced he was joining the club.

Governor RICK SCOTT (Republican, Florida): The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers, and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits.

ALLEN: During the campaign and after taking office, Scott said he wanted to look at the cost and ridership projections of the rail project before making a decision. Yesterday, Scott said he'd seen enough.

Gov. SCOTT: The circled data shows capital cost overruns are pervasive in nine of 10 high-risk, high-speed rail projects, and that two-thirds of those projects inflated revenue projections by an average of 65 percent of actual patronage.

ALLEN: It's not every day that a governor returns billions of dollars to the federal government. The reaction from high-speed rail advocates ranged from disbelief to despair.

Mr. ANDY KUNZ (President, U.S. High Speed Rail Association): This is just a travesty for the state.

ALLEN: Andy Kunz of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association says Scott is wrong that taxpayers would be at risk. At a conference last week in Washington, Kunz says the international rail consortium's eager to bid on Florida's rail projects, clearly said they were willing to assume all the risks.

Mr. KUNZ: They have no problem getting on the hook for ridership guarantees, operation and maintenance guarantees, and will cover all subsidies for the system for 30 years.

ALLEN: Scott's announcement took even fellow Republicans by surprise. Some Republican leaders in the Legislature said the governor may have exceeded his authority. The Legislature has already appropriate some $300 million to pay for planning and design.

In Congress, John Mica, the influential Florida Republican who heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called it a huge setback for the State of Florida.

In the short-term, the project means Florida will lose out on thousands of badly needed construction jobs.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Democrat from the Tampa area, said there will be long-term costs, as well.

Representative KATHY CASTOR (Democrat, Florida): This jobs initiative in high-speed rail was viewed as a way to really build a more modern Florida, lure innovative businesses, attract more tourists that would travel from Disney World in Orlando to the beaches, and then down to Miami. It would be a huge game changer for the state.

ALLEN: The impact from Governor Scott's announcement reverberated beyond Florida to Washington, D.C. and states where high-speed rail had been gaining momentum.

Just last week, President Obama announced plans to spend an additional $53 billion on high-speed rail with an eye toward building a national system.

Andy Kunz says there's still plenty of bipartisan support for high-speed rail, so he believes it will survive.

Mr. KUNZ: But I do see the Florida reaction as sort of a slap in Obama's face. You know, Obama announces ramping up the program, and so he just reacts, he says, you know, I'll show you. I'll cancel the project.

ALLEN: In a statement after Governor Scott's announcement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he was disappointed, but that other states are enthusiastic to receive Florida's funding.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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