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No high-speed rail funds for Florida

TALLAHASSEE -- After the state Supreme Court ruled in his favor and the federal government begrudgingly accepted his refusal, Gov. Rick Scott emerged victorious Friday in his effort to kill high-speed rail in Florida.

The death knell came when the court turned down a last-minute lawsuit from two state senators to save the Tampa-Orlando line and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced he would send $2.4 billion earmarked for Florida to other states.

“I know that states across America are enthusiastic about receiving additional support to help bring America’s high-speed rail network to life and deliver all its economic benefits to their citizens,” LaHood said shortly after he talked by phone with Scott, who rejected the money for a third time.

The midmorning announcements within minutes of each other brought abrupt closure to two weeks of uncertainty that started when Scott formally declared Feb. 16 he didn’t want the money that had been accepted last year by the Legislature and then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

Sens. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, filed a lawsuit Tuesday arguing that Scott overstepped his executive authority with the decision, but in a terse, one-page ruling, the justices sided unanimously with Scott.

“The Court has reviewed the petition, response, and reply, has heard oral argument, and has considered the factual allegations and legal arguments,” reads the ruling. “Based on the limited record before the Court and a review of the federal and state law relied on by the parties, the Court has determined that the petitioners have not clearly demonstrated entitlement to ... relief.”

A spokesman said the governor is “gratified” by the outcome.

“He is now focused on moving forward with infrastructure projects that create long-term jobs and turn Florida’s economy around,” spokesman Brian Burgess said in a statement.

Within the hour, Scott announced plans to spend $77 million to dredge the Miami port to boost international trade. In a striking tableau, Scott later stood face-to-face with the country’s top rail advocate -- President Barack Obama. Scott greeted Obama as he stepped off a plane in Miami for an education event and Democratic fundraisers.

The rapid turn of events elicited deep disappointment and a desperate “Hail Mary” pass by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who asked LaHood to consider allowing a local government coalition to compete against the states clamoring for the money.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said it was a bitter end to a hard fight by rail supporters.

“The governor’s decision shows a devastating lack of vision, a lack of understanding of Florida’s economic situation, and an unfortunate devotion to his own rigid ideology,” Castor said.

Third death for rail

It’s the third time the promise of high-speed rail in Florida has been crushed by a governor.

Six days after taking office in 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush halted construction of a bullet train that already had a contractor.

Five years later, he led a successful campaign to repeal a constitutional amendment passed in 2000 that required construction of high-speed rail.

And then came Scott.

With a vision for a high-speed rail system that would transform America the way interstate highways did, Obama in early 2010 awarded Florida $1.26 billion for a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando. It was part of a nationwide $8 billion economic stimulus package focused on rail. More money came to Florida as other states rejected the funding.

By the time of Scott’s inauguration in January, the federal government had granted Florida a total of $2.4 billion, nearly enough to build the entire 84-mile Tampa-to-Orlando stretch.

Companies from around the world with familiar names such as Virgin, Siemens and Hyundai had lined up to construct the country’s first high-speed rail line.

But on the campaign trail, Scott had expressed skepticism about the project, and he carried that into the governor’s office.

A request for proposals from vendors never went out, and an updated ridership study has yet to be released.

Less than six weeks after he was sworn in, Scott announced he would reject the money, citing concerns about saddling state taxpayers with construction cost overruns, operating losses due to low ridership and returning the $2.4 billion to the federal government if the project failed.

The move set off a scramble by leaders of local governments, including Tampa, Orlando, Lakeland and Miami, who formed a coalition they said would assume responsibility for putting the project out to bid and ensuring Florida taxpayers would face no financial risk.

Scott remained unconvinced.

After Friday’s stinging defeat, some high-speed rail supporters, such as Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, accused the governor of making a political decision aimed at thwarting a priority of the Obama administration.

Altman, one of the senators who sued Scott, noted the governor is establishing a trend of “sending a message to Washington” by rejecting federal money. Scott also sent back grants intended to implement the health care law.

“There seems to be the thought that if there’s money from Washington, it’s evil and we should send it back to Washington,” Altman said. “... That money is our money. We send it to Washington.”

Maybe some day

Talk of high-speed rail in Florida began in the 1970s, and those faithful to the concept remain hopeful.

Doc Dockery, a Lakeland businessman and the husband of Paula Dockery, led the campaign in 2000 for the bullet train amendment.

He expressed sadness for Florida on Friday.

“My objective was to support high-speed rail anywhere in the U.S. The second tier was to bring high-speed rail to Florida, hoping we’d be the first link in a nationwide system,” he said. “But my dream and objective and vision matches Obama’s.”

“I am sad today at the opportunity we’ve missed,” said former Gov. Bob Graham, who advocated high-speed rail in Florida in the early 1980s after he visited Japan and rode a train there.

Graham said Florida remains a perfect place, with few physical obstructions and lots of tourists. Unrest in the Middle East, he said, underscores the danger of our dependence on oil and the cost of gasoline.

“This is not going to be the last time there will a federal interest in this project,” Graham said. “It just means Florida instead of being at the very head of the line is going to be back in the pack.”

Ed Turanchik, a Tampa developer who has been involved in the high-speed rail drama for more than 20 years, called rail “an irrepressible force that will inevitably see a day in Florida.”

“In 1999 people thought it was dead. It came back. In 2004 people thought it was dead. It came back again,” he said. “And the reason it keeps coming back is because Florida is so well-suited for a high-speed rail solution to move people between our cities. We’ve got flat terrain, the right of ways are available, and the cities are separated by long distances. It will be back.”

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