Blog The high-speed rail beauty contest: Florida walks, others talk

Florida HSR Station Rendering.png

Concept view of Tampa-Orlando HSR station (Source: Florida High Speed Rail)

Governor Rick Scott of Florida has turned down $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail money. The money, part of President Obama’s push for building high-speed passenger rail, was to be used for a line connecting Tampa and Orlando. In his prepared remarks, former business executive Scott said his concerns centered on “capital cost overruns,” unrealistic “ridership and revenue projections,” and a fear that his “state would have to return the $2.4 billion” if Florida couldn’t afford to keep the project going.

As news of the announcement spread beyond the Sunshine State, others in the high-speed rail funding queue moved faster than the 250 mph Shanghai Maglev passenger train to announce they’d happily take the money Florida isn’t using.

Washington’s Governor Chris Gregoire, whose state is in the heart of the Cascadia Corridor running from Oregon to Vancouver, B.C., said Washington state could put the money to good use and that the funds would supplement the $751.5 million already allocated for the corridor. “These rail lines take cars off our roads while moving workers and tourists between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C.,” she said. “These federal funds are an investment in our economy, and support hundreds of construction and operating jobs in our state.”

Meanwhile, California’s two U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood urging that Florida’s money “be redirected to our (California’s) high-speed rail initiative.” According to the letter, California is “leading the Nation (sic) in the development of high-speed rail” and has “over $5.5 billion in funds allocated for construction that will begin in 2012.”

Florida isn’t breaking new ground by turning down federal high-speed rail money. Despite strong grassroots and local official support for the Tampa-Orlando project, the state’s decision to forego federal funding for high-speed rail projects follows similar decisions made by the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin late last year. High-speed rail support was strong in those states too. 

Secretary LaHood, a former Republican congressman, is on point for shepherding the administration’s transportation priorities. And he seems serious enough about high-speed rail, telling Florida that it has one
to change its mind or the money will go to other states.
(Supporters of the Florida project are scrambling to seek a
resolution that would circumvent Scott’s decision and keep the rail funding in the state.) Further emphasizing that the administration–despite opposition from governors of three states originally in line for funding–isn’t backing down from its plans for high-speed rail, LaHood wrote
in “The Hill” this morning, “The president’s budget keeps us on track
toward a national high-speed rail system with its $8 billion investment
in 2012 and $53 billion investment during the next six years.”

Governor Scott’s decision reminds us that opinions about where and how to allocate transportation and infrastructure dollars vary dramatically across the country, within states, and even within political parties. High-speed rail, even though it remains the centerpiece of President Obama’s transportation plan, is far from immune from the current infrastructure and transportation political tug of war. If anything, it’s right in the middle of it.