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USHSR's Kunz: USDOT likely still exploring options to proceed with Tampa-Orlando project


Florida Gov. Rick Scott has been adamant about rejecting the $2.4 billion in high-speed stimulus funds earmarked for the Tampa-Orlando project, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has given up.

“We haven’t heard the fat lady singing,” says U.S. High Speed Rail Association President and Chief Executive Officer Andy Kunz. “It’s not over until Secretary LaHood says he’s giving the money to another state.”

USDOT still has other options to advance the project without involving the state of Florida — at least financially, says Kunz. The USDOT could give the money to an interlocal agency created last month by the cities of Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando and Miami that would be financially independent from the state of Florida and the cities that created it, and transfer all construction and operation of the HSR system to a private entity. Or, the USDOT could administer the project directly by elevating it to a project of national significance or national demonstration project, says Kunz

“That’s clearly what they’re looking at. There’s no doubt they could do it — the question is, will the governor step out of the way and let them do it, or would he fight it?” says Kunz.

The USDOT will explore all possible options to keep the Florida project on track because it’s the only project that is ready to go out to bid and would be the first “true” high-speed rail system to be constructed in the United States, serving as a national model, says Kunz. It also is in a prime location. Because the line would serve Disney World, the world’s largest tourist attraction, it would attract domestic and international attention, he adds.

However, if USDOT officials think Scott will continue to stand in the way of the project even if it doesn’t involve the state (the line would be constructed on publicly owned right of way), they might ultimately decide to give Florida’s money to another state or states.

“They don’t want it to end up being stuck in the courts for five years; instead, they’d take the money and give it to California so they can keep the national program going,” says Kunz. “If [Florida’s project] ends up in a lawsuit, that will be a big, black blemish on high-speed rail.”

Either way, expect the USDOT to make its decision very soon, says Kunz.

Even if the USDOT does redirect Florida’s funds, that doesn’t mean the project is dead — only that it’s been put on hold, Kunz adds.

“As soon as a new governor walks in who supports high-speed rail, this project will come back to life,” he says. “They’ve advanced the project now to where it’s almost ready to go out to bid. The project’s been taken a lot further in the last year in terms of working out a lot more details, so even if it does get put on hold, the next time it comes back to life, it will be ready to go out to bid.”

In the meantime, there are plenty of other states clamoring for Florida’s funds if the USDOT decides to redirect them. And although a funding redirection will slow down the delivery of the first project, it won’t slow down the momentum for the national HSR program, Kunz believes.

“Florida is probably only three years away from actually opening for business, but California is coming in a close second,” he says. “California is just a little more complicated and much bigger — even their first stretch will be longer than Florida’s — but the momentum is still moving forward.”

As a result, California likely will be USDOT’s first choice if it needs to redirect funds. The Northeast Corridor and Chicago-to-St. Louis might see some funds, as well, but Kunz doesn’t think the federal government will divide up Florida’s $2.4 billion to many different states.

“They really have to focus and get one system up and running,” Kunz says. “They tried doing that with Florida, but the governor scuttled that plan. Still, the DOT is on the right track in terms of getting one or two systems running so we have a national model.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned through the Florida/Gov. Scott example, it’s that the USDOT would be wise to make some changes to the HSR program to prevent governors from stopping projects in the future. The national HSR build-out will take decades to complete and span the terms of many governors, congressmen and presidents.

“We can’t have one guy coming in and stopping a whole project that people have been working on for decades,” says Kunz. “This is showing the DOT and FRA that the way these programs are being administered leaves that vulnerability in there, so they have to try to make the program a little more bullet-proof.”

One option: set up a trust for each HSR project that locks in funding, says Kunz.

“There’s a lot of change and turbulence that comes with having a focused program with leadership changing like the wind,” says Kunz. “We’re in the early stages right now, with lots of debate and fits and starts, but once we get past all that, we could be building high-speed rail as fast as China.”

Angela Cotey

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 3/11/2011