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Robert Trigaux

Sifting the high speed rail wreckage for clues to Gov. Scott's real agenda in rejecting project



rickscottap.jpgWake up and good morning. Thursday's arrived with one big hangover for business leaders stung by the, if not unexpected, seemingly premature decision by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to cancel the high speed rail project that would have linked Tampa and Orlando (and points between, including Lakeland). (Rick Scott photo: AP)

The press coverage today is widespread but much of it is trying to sift for the logic behind the early rejection by Scott. Is this ultimately an ideological decision, usurping the widespread assumption that Scott uses CEO-like business analysis in making key choices for state government and for Florida's future? While it's been annoying to hear political leaders constantly support the high speed rail project because it creates jobs -- what an absurd and overpriced method to increase employment -- rather than praise its virtue as the start of a statewide (and eventually a national) high-speed mass transit system, Scott's rejection of rail before private industry could offer its contribution to the project is troubling. And it raises questions whether Scott will be prone to more politically-motivated instead of economically-evaluated decisions.

Further, it raises the issue of risk. It's so easy to say No to any project that costs money and involves an element of risk. But Scott should be challenged: What is the risk to Florida, long term, in doing nothing?

Here are some of the sharper insights from this morning's barrage of media coverage on Scott's rail rejection:

* While the Los Angeles Times reports that California's already scurrying to get a piece of the $2.4 billion in federal funds for high speed rail rejected by Florida, the San Jose Mercury News offers this red flag: "California is now the nation's only state close to building a high-speed railway after Florida killed its project Wednesday, casting further doubt on whether there is enough national support to fund the Golden State's train line." Read that story here.

* Florida's Scott joined the governors or Wisconsin and Ohio in rejecting high speed rail funds. Says the Christian Science Monitor: "The three governors may be tearing a page from the playbook of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who derailed plans for a partially federally-funded train tunnel project to connect New Jersey and Manhattan. He said the state could not afford to continue the project, and a Quinnipiac poll last week showed that his approval rating has improved to 52 percent – up 6 percentage points since December." Read that story here.

* Scott's (too) quick move on rail may just be a warm-up act. Floridians can expect more of the same, says William March of the Tampa Tribune. He quotes Republican state Rep. Mike Weinstein of Jacksonville, among the few mainstream Republicans who backed Scott in last year's primary against Bill McCollum. "He doesn't owe anything to anybody. … He has no inhibitions," Weinstein told March. "That could be a problem, he said, 'If you were king. But the governor is surrounded by checks and balances,' including the Legislature. 'He'll get checked and balanced a lot, but he'll take us further and quicker than anyone has.' " Weinstein said Scott's style may moderate with time. "You begin to develop parameters and limitations, but he's pretty unique." Read that story here.

* Rail advocates grasped for ways to capture the loss of Florida's project. "This is almost on par with back in the '60s telling Disney, 'No, we don't want you in the state,' " Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (Kunz grew up in Clearwater), told the Wall Street Journal. Read that story here.

*And what of the major newspaper editorials on this topic -- not that Rick Scott's ever cared since he never visited editorial boards and claims not to read newspapers. Opines the St. Petersburg Times today: "The consequences of Scott's grandstanding are clear. More than $2.4 billion from Washington? Gone. Five thousand construction jobs? Gone. A modern transportation link between two of the largest cities in the fourth-largest state? Gone. Thousands of additional jobs serving the line; billions of dollars more in private-sector investment; and the chance for an ever bigger bang by extending the system from Orlando to Miami? Gone, gone, gone."

And here's apiece of the editorial from today's Orlando Sentinel: "The Orlando-Tampa line would have created an estimated 23,000 jobs to build it and another 1,000 permanent jobs to operate and maintain it. Mr. Scott couldn't be bothered about that in rejecting $2.4 billion — that's billion with a B — specifically earmarked by the federal government for the project. And, in an Orwellian, head-shaking, did-I-really-hear-him-say-that? moment, the governor reminded listeners during his job-killing announcement that he 'was elected to get Floridians back to work.' This was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to start transforming the way Floridians get around."

'Nuff said. Just remember, it ain't over til it's over and efforts are afoot to try and create high speed rail now by cutting the state out of the high speed rail equation. Read more here.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 7:09am]


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