The feds have given the state $2.4 billion for high-speed rail, but some want to give it back
By Lloyd Dunkelberger Tallahassee bureau
Published: Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 9:36 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s high-speed rail system may offer trains capable of running at 168 mph, but the project has yet to prove it can outrun the pull of state politics.
It has been that way from the beginning. Voters in 2000 approved a constitutional amendment authorizing high-speed trains, then rejected the idea four years later in another amendment.
Now, the federal government has given the state $2.4 billion to build a rail line from Tampa to Orlando, creating the most momentum yet to make the train a reality and turning 2011 into the decisive year for the future of a high-speed train in Florida.
But skepticism — from newly elected Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican who has declared his intention to challenge rail-supporter and Democrat Bill Nelson for his U.S. Senate seat, and the politically influential tea party movement — is slowing the project again.
There is no better illustration of politics’ role in Florida’s great train debate than one of the key lobbying groups behind the latest rail project.
In 2004, Slater Bayliss ran the political campaign to convince Florida voters to kill a high-speed train project.
Now, Bayliss and his lobbying firm, headed by former state Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas, are trying to convince state leaders not to reject the nation’s first high-speed rail system.
The Cardenas firm represents a consortium of companies from Japan, the United States and United Kingdom seeking to build the 84-mile Tampa-Orlando line, which is expected to cost some $2.6 billion. It is competing with at least six other groups also vying for the Florida contract.
Bayliss said the latest rail proposal is much different from the one he opposed in 2004, noting that the prior project carried a price tag as high as $25 billion, had no federal funding and lacked provisions allowing the creation of public-private partnerships.
“We have a project right now that is well thought out, well analyzed, well planned and federally funded, and hopefully also has some risk borne by the private entities,” Bayliss told the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee earlier this month.
Last week, the Cardenas firm added to its political clout by hiring Lanny Wiles, a veteran GOP operative who played a key role in Scott’s recent campaign. His wife, Susie Wiles, was Scott’s campaign manager.
Wiles, who helped Ronald Reagan in his presidential campaigns, said in a statement he would be “offering strategic and tactical advocacy counsel” to the clients represented by Cardenas’ firm.
But whether Wiles and other train supporters can convince Scott to go along with the project is unclear.
A successful business executive, Scott ran as an “outsider” in last year’s governor’s race, vowing to cut the cost and scope of government and frequently bashing the spending initiatives of President Barack Obama, who is promoting high-speed rail projects around the country.
If he rejects the project and returns a $2.4 billion check to Washington, Scott would follow the lead of a handful of other conservative governors who have opposed major federal transportation projects in their states, including the governors of New Jersey and Wisconsin.
Scott has consistently said he would scrutinize the Florida rail proposal, trying to determine whether it would be a good investment for the state.
A new ridership survey from the state Department of Transportation, due next month, will be one factor in his decision. Two previous studies have projected there would be enough riders to cover operating costs.
“Plan to look at ridership studies and get input from as many people as possible,” Scott said in a message posted Thursday night during his “Twitter town hall” meeting.
Train supporters hope to sway Scott, in part, by emphasizing the project’s ability to generate jobs. Estimates show it could lead to 23,000 new jobs over a four-year construction period, with 45,000 jobs indirectly created. Those numbers may also be a factor for a governor who has promised to create 700,000 new jobs over seven years.
U.S. Senate politics could derail the train.
Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, is preparing to oppose Nelson’s re-election bid next year.
But first, Haridopolos needs to win the Republican nomination. And his potential opposition to the train could help solidify his support among conservatives, including tea party activists.
Also, opposing the train could provide a contrast with the Obama administration and Nelson, who strongly support it.
“This is one that we simply do not want to lose,” Nelson told editors and reporters this week at the Associated Press’ legislative planning session. “We’ve worked hard to get it where it is.”
Yet, speaking to the same group, Haridopolos raised concerns, including whether the private sector would pick up the remaining $280 million cost of the project and whether the state would be responsible for the long-term operating and maintenance expenses of the rail line, which eventually would be extended from Orlando to Miami.
“Bill Nelson and I disagree on the rail issue,” Haridopolos said. “I think the private sector money is there. If not, we should just send it back to Washington, because we can’t afford $300 million.”