Feds balk at scaled-back high-speed rail plan

Federal officials balked Saturday at a scaled-back plan for high-speed rail proposed by a powerful Florida congressman, giving hope to advocates for an entire Orlando-to-Tampa line but underscoring the efforts’ shaky status.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, late Friday announced a plan to dramatically shrink the project to an Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World link.

Chairman of the House transportation committee, Mica contends it’s the best way to get the project rolling and overcome the problem presented by Gov. Rick Scott’s rejection of $2.4 billion in federal funding.

But Sen. Bill Nelson spoke with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Saturday and said later that federal officials are saying “no” to Mica’s plan, which would be limited to 21 miles in the Orlando area. The idea was to connect large metropolitan areas and quickly move people between them.

The Department of Transportation declined comment, but did not dispute Nelson’s account. Mica was traveling and could not be reached for comment. A spokesman said he was open to feedback from Tampa officials.

“He felt it was critical to put forth something quickly because other states are already lining up to ask for this funding,” said spokesman Justin Harclerode.

What happens next is unclear. Mica’s sudden plan paired with the apparent disapproval by the Department of Transportation made for a lot of unknowns Saturday and time is running out.

A loose coalition of Florida officials has until Friday to come up with an alternative that bypasses the state and transfers the money to some other entity, such as a regional transportation board or local government.

Indeed, a divided approach over how to proceed would hamper their case, particularly with the time crunch.

If they cannot come up with something, Florida’s $2.4 billion will be handed out to other states, several of which have eagerly stretched out their palms in the days since Scott’s rejection.

Advocates for the full line were surprised, if not taken aback by Mica’s plan, released late Friday. They proceeded cautiously Saturday but disappointment was evident.

“Our goal is to bring as many jobs as possible to the state of Florida and lay a foundation for long-term economic growth,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who has been coordinating with officials in Tampa and Nelson.

“We have the basis for a legal and practical proposal that will accomplish the original goal of high-speed rail, jobs and hope for Florida,” Castor said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a rail proponent, criticized a “piecemeal approach.”

“I think it’s probably a good time now for us all to stop, take a deep breath, and begin to re-evaluate our nation’s transportation plan from the bottom up and the top down,” he said.

Mica proposed to bring together Orange and Osceola counties with the city of Orlando to build a 21-mile stretch between Walt Disney World and Orlando International Airport.

As for stations, Disney has committed to donate a site valued at $25 million for a stop on its property, according to federal grant applications. A convention center stop is planned for a 20-acre parcel owned by Orange County, and the final station is at Orlando International Airport.

Some thought his plan could work.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from St. Petersburg who chairs the transportation committee, said “more power” to Mica if he “can swing this.” It could pave the way for a Tampa leg, Latvala said, and could be done with little help from the governor.

“As long it’s in one county or metropolitan area, I would pretty much imagine that could be done with local sponsorship,” Latvala said.

“The only problem is I think he could say you can’t have DOT right-of-way. I just can’t imagine he wouldn’t be reasonable.”

But Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Republican senator from Fort Lauderdale, said if Mica’s plan needed any state backing, it wouldn’t get hers because 21 miles is too short.

“The purpose of a bullet train is to take you long distances in a short period of time. I don’t think the airport to Disney is a long-enough distance. At first glance, it really doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” she said.

Bogdanoff said she never liked the project anyway, and would have preferred that a Miami-to-Orlando route be built first because of its greater ridership potential.

Latvala and Bogdanoff signed a letter this week criticizing Scott for rejecting the federal money, largely they said, over the way Scott handled it.

“He didn’t let it go through the process,” Bogdanoff said. “The process is important to maintain a democracy. This is not corporate America. This is politics.”

Critics of any rail deal say a smaller line does not help the case.

“The bottom line is that building high-speed rail just for the sake of building high-speed rail would be a reckless mistake and it is a perfect example of why the ‘stimulus’ hasn’t worked,” said U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Brooksville.

But Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of th0e Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, is just hoping a deal can be worked out.

“If the issue is protecting the taxpayers, then let’s work on getting an agreement that does that,” he said.

“I honestly believe there’s enough taxpayer support to make this happen. ... This has evolved over the last 20 years to finally come up with something that can work. Let’s not throw away 20 years of work. This is a game-changing project for our community, and we need to be very serious about this fork in the road.”

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