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Florida's Loss: Rick Scott's High-Speed Rail Shootdown


The nation's first true high-speed railroad was supposed to leave the station in 2015, a sleek Tomorrowland-worthy train that would have whisked riders between Orlando and Tampa at speeds of up to 168 miles an hour.

The federal government had agreed to pay $2.4 billion of its estimated $2.6 billion in construction costs, railroad companies were vying to build and operate it, and state transportation planners had even dummied up proposed timetables: Train 7092 would depart Tampa at 8:10 a.m. and arrive in Orlando at 9:04 a.m.

The fast train was sought, and won, by Florida's former Republican governor, Charlie Crist. But it was killed last month by his successor, Rick Scott, who joined several other Republican governors in spurning federally financed train projects over fears that

their states could be on the hook for future costs. The final nail in its coffin came last week when a Florida court ruled that the new governor could not be forced to accept the federal money and start building it.

The demise of the Florida line is different, though. It will delay the country's first bullet train ride by years, if not longer, and deprive the Obama administration of what it had hoped would be a showpiece that would sell the rest of the nation on high-speed rail.

The administration said Friday that it would give Florida's $2.4 billion to rail projects elsewhere and invited other states to apply for the money...

Then things began to fall apart. As the 2010 midterm elections heated up, Republicans began running against the federal largess states have traditionally sought.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, killed a long-planned commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River. Scott Walker, the new Republican governor of Wisconsin, killed a new conventional passenger train line that was to be built between Milwaukee and Madison, and paid for with $810 million in federal stimulus money. The new governor of Ohio, John R. Kasich, killed a $400 million federally financed line that would have linked Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. When President Obama called for expanding the nation's rail program in this year's State of the Union address, Sarah Palin took to her Facebook page to denounce it as "a bullet train to bankruptcy."

With Florida's new governor, Mr. Scott, expressing reservations about the plan, the Obama administration moved quickly to award $342 million of the forfeited money from the Midwest to Florida. That brought the federal commitment to Florida to roughly $2.4 billion, almost enough to cover the projected $2.6 billion cost.

But the backlash was strong in Florida. In his race for the United States Senate last year, Mr. Crist found his success at winning stimulus money for Florida turned into a liability. Conservatives, and a newly powerful Tea Party movement, saw the federal spending as a problem, not as a solution to the state's high unemployment rate. Mr. Crist ended up leaving the Republican Party and running, unsuccessfully, as an independent.

Last month, Mr. Scott decided to scuttle the project after reading a report by the Reason Foundation that questioned its ridership estimates. The foundation is a prominent libertarian policy research organization that employs several respected transportation analysts, but it gets some of its funding from donors with ties to the oil industry, including foundations related to Koch Industries, which owns oil refineries.

"The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers, and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits," Mr. Scott said.

But a state-sponsored ridership study, which was released this week, concluded that the proposed line would actually have been a money-maker from the start. 

Obama administration officials are still pushing ahead with their goal of winning a $53 billion commitment to railroads over the next six years, and say that other states are clamoring for the money rejected by Florida.


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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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