Feds give Florida 1 week to come up with new rail money plan

From Washington to Tallahassee, Florida lawmakers scrambled Thursday to save $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail that Gov. Rick Scott rejected.

In Washington, members of Florida's congressional delegation met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who gave them one week to cobble together a complicated deal that would give the money to a private entity such as Amtrak or a regional planning organization.

"The cart's in a ditch right now and we've got to figure out a way if we can all pull it out together," said U.S. Rep. John Mica, an Orlando area Republican who is chairman of the powerful House transportation committee.

In Tallahassee, a veto-proof majority of the Florida Senate rebuked Scott in a letter that urged the federal government to give the state the money Scott has refused.

"Politics should have no place in the future of Florida's transportation, as evidenced by this letter of bipartisan support," said the letter, signed by 26 members of the Republican-controlled Florida Senate.

"This project would create real jobs, cleaner and smarter transportation and true economic development for Floridians," said the letter written to LaHood.

The letter was authored in part by one of Scott's first Senate backers, Republican Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who argued that the newly created Florida Rail Enterprise could act independently of Scott because the state's share of the rail money — $300 million — was already approved last year by a previous governor, Charlie Crist.

The long planned rail line would connect Tampa to Orlando and the $2.4 billion would have covered nearly the entire cost. Private companies were willing to cover any additional construction costs and operating losses. But Scott worried about cost overruns, and said low ridership would have required state subsidies.

His reservations were well-known, but his decision was a shocker nonetheless with state and federal officials working closely and in harmony.

LaHood was clearly upset during Thursday's meeting in Sen. Bill Nelson's office and left without comment.

A gaggle of lawmakers, mostly Democrats, vowed to make the deal work and said they have talked to Amtrak and regional planning groups in Florida.

The deal would work like this: The money would flow through the state to a group that would serve as a subgrantee. The proposed deal calls for the entity to assume additional costs not covered by the federal grant and assume risk and responsibility.

"We're not going to give up these jobs without a fight," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

Castor said she met Thursday morning with members of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, which could possibly receive the money.

"Yes, we've been part of the conversation," said Amy Ellis, a spokeswoman for the multicounty transportation planning body. But the deal would likely need Scott's approval and he was not budging.

"I don't believe we should be trying to push our counties into taking an irresponsible act of taking the risk of a high speed rail project," he said at a news conference Thursday.

Scott said he would rather the federal money go into Florida's ports.

"We've got the opportunity with the expansion of the Panama Canal, the opportunity with the economies of Central and South America," he said.

The governor is not the only obstacle. "Our enemy at this point," Nelson said, "is time."

LaHood, a former Republican congressman appointed by President Barack Obama, is a staunch proponent of Florida's project but could grant only a one week reprieve. A spokeswoman for LaHood said the federal stimulus money was intended to be put to work as quickly as possible.

Already New York, California and Washington have lobbied for Florida's share.

Scott shocked legislators by announcing he would reject the money and then doubled down Thursday by calling the bullet train a "boondoggle." He cited findings from the Libertarian Reason Foundation questioning the ridership projections for the Tampa-Orlando line.

Dockery said the study was "inaccurate." Echoing other senators, Dockery said the state would be foolish to turn down the federal money to create a "premier" rail line.

"This was going to be a model for the nation," Dockery said.

Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos didn't sign the letter. "I was never a big supporter of high-speed rail," said Haridopolos, who voted for the rail legislation package in December 2009.

Haridopolos, who is running for U.S. Senate against Nelson, did give the green light for some of his top lawmakers to sign Dockery's letter, including Senate Republican leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who pushed the rail legislation more than a year ago.

"We're just saying slow this down, don't give away this money just yet," Gardiner said.

Gardiner referred questions about the legality of Scott's rejection of federal money to Sen. David Simmons, whom he described as the "brains" of the Senate. Simmons helped write the letter with Dockery and Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne.

"The bottom line is that he can't reject this money: It was already approved by another Legislature and another governor," said Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. "It's like trying to veto a bill after it becomes law. It's too late."

The number of senators who signed the letter, 26, is significant because it is a veto-proof majority. The lawmakers have the power to override any attempt Scott might make to block the appropriation of rail money.

Other senators said they also didn't like the fact that Scott decided to reverse a decision of the Legislature without giving lawmakers a heads up.

Said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, "This is a sign: Talk to us first."

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