No high-speed rail for Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The decades-old dream of high-speed rail in Florida died Friday when the state Supreme Court turned down a last-minute lawsuit to save the project and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced he would send Florida's $2.4 billion 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 to Gov. Rick Scott, who rejected the money for the third and final time.

A number of other states, including California and New York, have been lobbying for a share of Florida's money ever since Scott first rejected it last month.

Sens. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, filed suit Tuesday arguing that after he was elected Scott ignored a state statute requiring construction of high-speed rail and overstepped his executive authority by refusing to spend money appropriated by the Legislature.

But the court sided unanimously with Scott, and delivered a terse, one-page ruling.

"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. Accordingly, the emergency petition is hereby denied."

A spokesman for Scott said the governor is "gratified" by the decision.

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

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, expressed disappointment in the outcome of a hard fight by rail supporters.

"Despite bipartisan support and years of planning, Gov. Scott is sending those jobs we won to other states," Castor said. "Other states continue to believe that accepting the high-speed rail money is the right thing to do. The plan we presented the governor met every test he mentioned."

During oral arguments at the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday, justices seized on the fact that the Legislature had not appropriated the entire $2.4 billion.

That means that lawmakers would need to vote to spend the remaining money, which would require the governor's approval.

Scott's attorney, Charles Trippe, said the governor would veto any further appropriations.

President Barack Obama awarded Florida an initial $1.26 billion for high speed rail in early 2010 as part of a nationwide $8 billion economic stimulus package.

More money came to the state as other states rejected the federal funding.

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

Business groups from around the world with familiar names such as Siemens, Hyundai and Virgin had lined up to become part of the country's first high-speed rail line.

But Scott stopped forward movement on the project, saying he wanted to review the project.

On Feb. 16, he formally 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.

Scott said he would rather see the money invested in port improvements and other projects that he believes would have a greater economic impact on Florida.

The rejection set off a scramble by federal, state and local officials to circumvent him and save the long-planned project. Local governments, including Orlando, Tampa, Lakeland and Miami, formed a coalition they said would assume responsibility for putting the project out to bid and ensuring that a private company would cover any cost overruns .

But Scott remained unconvinced.

Related stories from Bradenton Herald