TALLAHASSEE — In an affront to his tea party base, Gov. Rick Scott on Friday announced he will allow SunRail, a commuter rail project in Central Florida, to go forward.
"This decision was made after a long, deliberative process," Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said in a morning news conference. "All stakeholders will be held accountable."
The controversial, $1.28 billion, 61.5 mile Central Florida project has been on hold since January, when Scott started a review of $238 million worth of SunRail contracts.
The project is a high priority for Central Florida business and political leaders, who say the line is a job creator and economic development tool that offers a mass transit solution to congested roads. Projections put ridership at about 2,150 passengers a day when SunRail opens.
Prasad called SunRail a "judgment day" project. If it fails, it could stop future commuter trains from coming to Florida, he said.
The decision is at odds with Scott's position on another rail project.
Early this year, he rejected $2.4 billion in federal funding for a bullet train connecting Tampa to Orlando, saying he was concerned about potential costs to Florida taxpayers. But Scott has said SunRail, which connects Orlando to neighboring communities, is different from high-speed rail because the state's commitment is capped and Central Florida governments will be responsible for much of the ongoing financial obligations.
Earlier this week, Scott dispatched Prasad to meetings with Orlando area residents and elected officials to emphasize that they'll be on the hook if the SunRail fails. And if local governments can't cover the costs, the money will come out of the region's state transportation dollars, which means there will be less money for roads and bridges, Prasad said.
SunRail has backing from a cast of powerful Central Florida politicians, including House Speaker Dean Cannon and U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
After rejecting SunRail in two full legislative sessions because of concerns about a state payment to freight operator CSX Corp. to use the company's tracks, lawmakers approved the project in a special session in December 2009 called by Gov. Charlie Crist to lure federal money for high speed rail.
Agreements call for the federal government to pay for half of SunRail's $615 million construction costs. The state and local governments will pay 25 percent each. Florida taxpayers will also pay $432 million to CSX for the right to share Orlando-area tracks and upgrade the company's freight operations in other parts of Florida. The state also has liability for any accidents that occur on the shared tracks.
Florida and local taxpayers will split payments for construction cost overruns. The state will cover operating losses for the first seven years of SunRail's operation. Local governments are responsible for operating losses after that.
A grant funding agreement with the U.S. Federal Transit Administration requires trains to be running by May 2014.