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Local reaction mixed on rejection of Florida high-speed rail

MANATEE -- One said she jumped for joy after hearing the news. Another said he fell back into his chair, stunned.

Gov. Rick Scott’s announcement that he will return $2.4 billion in federal money for a Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line, effectively derailing the project, drew widely varied reactions from residents and officials in Manatee County and throughout Florida.

Some hailed Scott’s decision as financially prudent, calling the proposed 84-mile rail line a guaranteed money-loser that would have burdened taxpayers. Others decried Scott’s move as a short-sighted mistake that will cost the state lost jobs, reduced federal funding and more traffic congestion.

Sentiments largely followed political and ideological lines.

“If a train from point A to point B could be financially successful, the free market would have provided that train,” said Linda Neely, chairwoman of Tea Party Manatee’s watchdog committee. “It was something that was a dream, and dreams can be expensive. Why do we have to tax every taxpayer in Florida for that dream?”

In rejecting the money, Scott said he feared Florida taxpayers could be on the hook for as much as $3 billion in cost overruns -- something that federal officials disputed. Scott also said he doubted the train, a high priority of the Obama administration, could survive without taxpayer subsidies.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat who represents a portion of Manatee County, said Scott’s decision “demonstrated a devastating lack of vision for Florida.”

“The governor put his own rigid ideology ahead of the best interests of Florida’s businesses, workers and families,” Castor said in a statement urging Scott to reconsider.

Otherwise, she said, the federal money will go to other states’ rail plans -- just like Florida got $800 million of money that the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin had earlier refused.

C.C. “Doc” Dockery, a Lakeland businessman who spearheaded a since-repealed state constitutional amendment that required Florida build a bullet train, echoed her warning.

“Congratulations to the people of California and Gov. Jerry Brown: They were just handed billions of dollars which will lead to thousands of jobs,” he said.

New York also is lobbying for the Florida money. They can have it, said Scott supporters who flocked to his Facebook page to post their kudos.

“Good call for all the right reasons!” wrote Kelly M. Snell of Sarasota.

But some commentators had opposing views.

“The people passed this when Jeb Bush was in office and he rejected it, then Scott,” wrote Lynn Arthur Quartermaine of Sarasota. ”It is business as usually in Florida. The rich control everything, but this too shall pass.”

In 1999, then-Gov. Jeb Bush scrapped a proposed $6.3 billion bullet train connecting Miami, Orlando and Tampa as too risky. That led to a 2000 voter-approved amendment, financed by Dockery, that the state begin building a high-speed rail system. But Bush led a successful repeal of the amendment in 2004.

Several elected officials were more reserved in their reactions.

“The governor is making the tough decisions to reduce state spending and balance the budget without raising taxes,” said U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, a frequent critic of federal spending levels.

Manatee County Commissioner Donna Hayes, a Republican who represents the county on the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, had mixed emotions.

“As a TBARTA member, I was certainly disappointed,” she said. “But as a resident of the state of Florida, I can understand his decision.”

But Commissioner Joe McClash was more blunt in his disapproval, calling it a rash decision by a “dictator” that will have repercussions for Florida.

“You’ve got somebody acting like a dictator, making decisions without reaching out to the stakeholders and listening to the people,” said McClash, a Republican long active in local and regional transportation issues. “The next time we go to Washington for transportation funding ... we’re not going to get any more of our fair share of dollars because this will be a black eye on Florida.”

Duane Marsteller, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.

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