Florida taxpayers off the hook for high-speed rail payback, region's mayors say

LAKELAND — The mayors of Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando said Thursday that they have received assurances from the U.S. Department of Transportation that Florida would not have to pay back $2.4 billion if the high-speed rail project failed.

"If there is one point that I would like to get across to every single Floridian who is concerned about this issue, it is this: There is absolutely no risk to the Florida taxpayer in moving forward with the high-speed rail project," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. "If the governor continues to maintain that there is risk to Florida taxpayers, it is inaccurate."

Iorio, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields appeared at a press conference in front of Lakeland City Hall. Their message: The key to protecting Florida from risk is the creation of a "nonrecourse" entity that would receive the federal money and build the high-sped rail line from Orlando to Tampa. The entity that receives the federal funding would be independent from the state and the cities involved, meaning that taxpayers would be protected from financial risk.

Gov. Rick Scott has refused federal money for the project. The gathering of mayors came just hours before the Florida Supreme Court was to hear oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by two state senators who are suing him for rejecting the money.

The mayors said that, in meeting with Scott, he had three concerns: construction cost overruns, shortfalls in operating revenue due to low ridership, and repayment of the money if the project was not finished or ceased operation.

They said they have answered all of Scott's concerns with the measures they are proposing and the federal government's promise that the payback of construction money would not be the taxpayers' responsibility.

Fields noted that there are 100 million vehicle trips a year along the Interstate 4 corridor.

A lane was added to I-4 10 years ago, and it's still congested in Tampa and Orlando, he said. "If we're going to remain competitive in the future, we can't increase congestion."

Two businessmen representing city business coalitions also spoke Thursday.

Stuart Rogel, president and chief executive of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which represents more than 180 businesses in eight counties, said his group has been working with counterparts in the other cities to urge Scott to build the rail line.