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Rail News: High-Speed Rail

For Gov. Scott, fiscal conservatism reigns supreme, Florida business group leader says


Last week, Associated Industries of Florida (AIF) President and Chief Executive Officer Barney Bishop III spoke at the U.S. High Speed Rail Association’s summit in Washington, D.C. AIF, which aims to foster business development in the state, formed a high-speed rail coalition last month to help advance Florida’s proposed project.

During his summit presentation, Bishop said the group had close contact with Gov. Rick Scott, and believed Scott ultimately would decide to move forward with the Tampa-Orlando project despite the governor’s belief that Florida should not have accepted federal stimulus dollars.

“He ran on a platform that he would create 700,000 jobs in seven years,” Bishop said last week. “We believe this governor will look more importantly at how many jobs get created than the fact that these are stimulus dollars and shouldn’t be spent.”

So when Scott announced yesterday that he was turning down the federal high-speed rail dollars for Florida — before even reviewing a ridership and economic study Scott commissioned after taking office — many Florida business and elected officials were caught off guard, Bishop included.

“We understand where the governor is coming from and we respect his decision,” he said. “But we would have liked to have seen the private-sector teams have the opportunity to submit their ideas.”

Scott had said he didn’t want the state to have to cover project costs or subsidize the service once it began. However, the federal government had ponied up funds to cover the majority of the Tampa-Orlando project cost, and private businesses had relayed their interest in helping to fund the remainder and possibly take on project cost risks.

But Scott might have made his decision after hearing last week’s announcement by the Obama Administration proposing to invest $53 billion in high-speed rail during the next six years, Bishop believes.

“That was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “This is a very fiscally conservative governor.”

And for Scott, fiscal conservatism will take priority over everything else — even job creation, says Bishop.

“Whenever anyone has competing principles, there’s always one principle that’s supreme above all others and for this governor, fiscal conservatism is now the No. 1 priority in his mind,” he says. “He thinks the federal government is going in the wrong direction and he is concerned and fearful of what the state liability might be.”

Now, Scott will need to answer to state legislators who are outraged not only about his decision, but because he made it without consulting other elected officials. It’s not clear at this point whether state legislators could or should have had a say in the decision to reject the high-speed funds, says Bishop.

“Does the state legislature have a say in this? Are they willing to vote over the governor’s head? Are they willing to override a veto? Because [Scott] certainly would veto it. Those are questions I can’t answer,” says Bishop. “We’ll have to wait and see when the dust settles where things are at. But I think there will be robust discussion over the next few days about what the legislature may or may not do and see how serious they are about doing something if they even have any options available to them — and that’s a big if.”

This isn’t the first time Florida’s high-speed rail program has been halted. The state has been discussing high-speed rail since the 1980s. Since then, several governors have terminated the project, most recently Gov. Jeb Bush, who first terminated the project in 1999, then vetoed high-speed rail funding in 2003 despite state voters approving a measure in 2000 that mandated the state construct a high-speed rail line.

“I think that we knew in our heart of hearts that this could happen,” said Bishop. “So we’re not entirely surprised, but it is surprising the decision was made now rather than a few weeks or months from now after we had an opportunity to see what the private sector was willing to do.”

Angela Cotey

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 2/17/2011