High-speed rail talk focuses on private sector commitment
With Gov. Rick Scott and Senate President Mike Haridopolos indicating they don't want to put any state money into a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando, presentations today in Senate committee meetings on the topic focused on what the private sector is willing to commit to the project. The federal government has awarded Florida about $2.4 billion to build the line, leaving about $280 million left to cover construction costs. Kevin Thibault, who heads the Florida Rail Enterprise, said the seven teams likely to bid on the project already know they have to cover construction cost overruns and absorb any losses due to low ridership. Thibault said plans call for asking proposers to help with the $280 million as well. "You may have proposers that say to us in September (when proposals will be due), I'll cover that," Thibault told the commerce committee.
Commerce committee member Jeremy Ring, a Democrat from Margate who also serves on the Florida Rail Commission, said he believes the business community will step up. "We are the first in the country to take on such a project. What that means is we have, I believe, an unbelievable amount of leverage," Ring said. "There's a tremendous amount we can get from these companies. They want this deal."
Slayter Bayliss, who in 2004 helped then Gov. Jeb Bush kill the constitutional amendment on the bullet train, is now working for one of the groups looking to bid on the project. He told the Senate transportation committee that this time around, the train has overcome the negatives it faced six years ago. There's a defined route, federal money and private sector involvement, Bayliss said. "If the Legislature is unhappy with the bids and the risk that is left after those bids come in, that would be the point to dig into the details," he said, noting there's no reason to let "political undercurrents" sidetrack the train.
Sen. Paula Dockery pointed out that building the line is likely to create more than 20,000 jobs at no cost to the state. "It's such a no-brainer it's amazing we're even considering not doing it," she told the commerce committee. Dockery also popped in on the Senate's transportation committee meeting to make the pitch for the train. In both meetings, she pointed out that Sun Rail (which she opposed) is going forward even though taxpayers are bearing a huge burden to make it happen, and high-speed rail might require nothing from Florida's coffers.