Rail supporters work to form partnership

TAMPA -- High-speed rail advocates Monday outlined a plan to form a partnership of local governments to take on the project that Gov. Rick Scott rejected at no risk to taxpayers.

“We are working together to keep the high-speed rail plans alive in Florida and keep the thousands of jobs right here,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

Scott, however, did not budge in his opposition to accepting federal rail funds.

“I remain convinced that there’s no way that they can do a project that the state taxpayers are not going to be on the hook for the cost overruns, the operating costs and, if it ever gets shut down, the $2.4 billion that we would have to pay back,” he said. “I don’t see any way that we’re not going to be on the hook.”

Yet supporters said that protection is exactly what their plan would achieve.

As proposed, the new independent regional agency would receive $2.4 billion in federal rail funds that Scott rejected last week. It would put the project out to bid, then hire a private company to build and run the line between Tampa and Orlando.

Key to the idea is that the private vendor would be required to assume all financial risks for building and running the bullet train.

Neither the state nor local governments would be responsible for any construction cost overruns, operating deficits from low ridership or responsibility to repay grant funds if the project failed, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said.

“The taxpayer is protected,” she said.

Meanwhile, a noontime rally outside Tampa City Hall drew a boisterous crowd of both rail supporters and opponents, one dressed as the Grim Reaper and carrying a sign that said, “Death to High Speed Rail.”

On Sunday, Scott said he would be willing to look at a plan, but doubted that it could reduce financial risk to taxpayers. His comment came during a conversation between the governor and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson at the Daytona 500.

Asked on Monday whether Nelson was wrong to conclude that Scott had left the door open on high-speed rail, the governor said, “I’m convinced it doesn’t work.”

The plan outlined Monday morning would rely on state law that allows local governments to create an independent regional agency.

Any two local governments could enter an agreement to form the proposed agency, Tampa City Attorney Chip Fletcher said.

It would not be necessary for every local government along the route to join the new agency, Fletcher said.

Along with Iorio, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer supports the idea, and the Lakeland City Commission Monday voted unanimously to join the effort.

Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields compared the approach to the way international airports are created: The federal government makes a substantial investment in infrastructure, then the private sector takes on the operational financial risk of flying the planes and running the airport concessions.

“We can take the general framework of that model and make it work for us,” Fields said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation “has agreed in principal” to a plan that would “place all of the financial risks with the private sector and only the private sector,” Iorio said.

Federal transportation officials would retain oversight of the grant to make sure that the company selected had the financial ability to provide a financial guarantee for the project.

If the project failed, federal government’s recourse would be to the rail operator, not the state or local governments, Iorio said.

Federal DOT officials declined comment Monday but were working closely with the Florida coalition, lending legal and technical support. Plans were under way for some officials to fly to Florida, perhaps, Tuesday, to meet with stakeholders.

But the idea faces at least two major hurdles.

The first is Gov. Scott himself. The state would have to grant the new agency the right of way along the Orlando-Tampa route, and provide technical expertise. The idea would fail without Scott’s approval and partnership from the state DOT, Fletcher conceded.

Backers hope to have the plan before Scott in the next day or so.

Also, the various consortia of private companies vying to bring high speed rail to Florida must go along.

“If no private vendor is willing or able to provide the necessary financial guarantees, then the project could not go forward,” Iorio said.

In California, high speed rail planners told lawmakers last year that some sort of revenue guarantee from the public will probably be needed to line up private financing for that state’s 520-mile bullet train, according to the Los Angeles Times.

On Monday, backers of high speed rail in Florida say the companies looking at the Sunshine State’s project have not indicated they expect such a guarantee.

“In any discussion, that has not come up,” said U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who has worked on high speed rail for 30 years and visited the companies interested in the Tampa to Orlando project.

Tampa Bay and Central Florida business development professionals said they welcomed the new proposal, hoping it eases Scott’s concerns and brings a project they expect will invigorate the region’s economy.

“We believe this project will have an immeasurable benefit to the state, no only now, but in the future,” said Stuart Rogel, president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional marketing organization.

State lawmakers were cautious, saying they wanted to see more.

“If there’s a way to do it without leaving the state exposed to an unfunded liability, absolutely, we’re interested to see that,” Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon said. But he added: “I’m skeptical that there’s a way to do it without leaving the state exposed.”

Monday’s rally in Tampa was organized by rail supporters, but drew dozens of people supporting the governor, including members of the Tampa, North Pinellas and Winter Haven chapters of the Tea Party-supported 9-12 Project.

“There is not one mass transit rail system in this entire country that is profitable, self-sustaining,” said Sixten Larsen of Clearwater, a member of the North Pinellas 9-12 Project.

As the anti-rail group grew in numbers and volume, rail supporter Norwood Orrick watched with a dejected look. With their “No Tax for Tracks” signs, the other side was well-organized, he said, but spouted misinformation.

“It’s an economic engine, just like an airport or seaport,” said Orrick, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “I think it’s just foolish to throw it away.”

As city leaders and candidates addressed the pro-rail crowd, anti-rail protestors tried drown them out. One woman shouted “No to rail!” during mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik’s entire speech while bystanders blocked her face with signs and cursed at her.

Across the state in Melbourne, Nelson planned to press the governor again Monday.

Last week, Scott said he was rejecting the $2.4 billion because he doubted enough people would use the train and due to potential cost to taxpayers. Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has given Florida rail backers until Friday to come up with a plan to get around Scott’s objections.

St. PeteTimes staff writers Alex Leary and Danny Valentine contributed to this report.

Related stories from Bradenton Herald