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High-speed rail hangover: Tampa Bay continues to miss out on U.S. DOT money

Tampa Bay Times



It sure was a bitter setback last month when Pinellas County learned it was denied a $19.1 million federal grant for the Pinellas Trail.

The 47-mile bike trail seems like just the type of project the U.S. Department of Transportation likes to finance through a program started in 2009 to provide support for transit, bike, pedestrian, rail, ports and other type of infrastructure not typically funded through regular work plans (read roads).

Yet it was the fourth time the trail applied for the money and got rejected.

What gives?

Well, Pinellas shouldn't take it personally.

It seems like it's not just Pinellas that struggles to tap the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program.

The entire state of Florida hasn't done well, either. 

Since 2009, the program has allocated $4.6 billion in seven rounds of funding. Florida has raked in $140 million of that funding, which is the ninth most of any state.

Not bad, right? Actually, given that Florida is third in population, that level of funding is awful. In fact, per capita, Florida ranks 50th (only Wisconsin and Puerto Rico fared worse) in getting TIGER money.

But there's a big reason why Florida isn't getting TIGER money. And that reason is Gov. Rick Scott. 

TIGER grants would have financed the high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando, but Scott rejected the $2 billion in federal money in 2011. Both he and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin had replaced governors who had lobbied for the money. Both won office riding Tea Party resentment of Washington spending. Scott was non-sensical in explaining why he was rejecting the money. He cited incorrect numbers from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think thank financed by Big Oil, that said the project would cost state taxpayers $1 billion to operate. False, said PolitiFact. 

Whatever the real reason for Scott rejecting the money, the damage was done. The hopes that Pres. Barack Obama had for creating a national high-speed rail network were crushed by Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio, which under Gov. John Kasich, also rejected the TIGER money.

Transportation projects now cost in the billions, numbers that are so big it's easy to forget that whether or not projects get built hinges on individual people, the decisions they make, and the relationships that are fostered or broken because of those decisions.

By turning away those billions of dollars, Scott allowed money that would have been spent in Florida to be spent elsewhere. And he didn't replace it with an alternative project that could compete for TIGER funds.

Florida got zero money in 2015 from TIGER, which allocated a total of $484 million elsewhere, including $15 million in Arizona, $25 million in Charlotte, and $15 million in Tacoma, Wash., all for projects related to rail. 

If Florida has done poorly, Tampa Bay has done worse in getting TIGER funds.

In seven years, it has managed to get only one grant, for $10.9 million for Tampa's Riverwalk, in 2012. By comparison, Raleigh, N.C. doubled that haul the same year, grabbing $21 million for passenger rail.  

Competition for these grants is, as the U.S. DOT says, "rigorous." The agency awarded 39 grants this year, but there were a total of 627 eligible applications. One of the factors that officials consider in reviewing the applications is how tranformative the project is, which is a hard case to make in Tampa Bay, a fractured region with no clear plan on providing a cohesive transportation network.

That it's located in a state governed by a man who refused to work with Obama on one of his main transportation goals can't possibly bode well for Tampa Bay's odds in netting much TIGER money, even if it's for a project like the Pinellas Trail.

[Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2015 9:56pm]


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