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Scott's rejection of high-speed rail will be costly for Florida's future

Florida Gov. Rick Scott last week unilaterally derailed the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail line, saying the potential financial costs to the state were just too high.

But the price to Florida of doing nothing may prove no less stratospheric.

Amid a struggling state economy, doing nothing means lost jobs now and lost jobs in the future by pulling the plug not only on the 84-mile Tampa-to-Orlando line, but the entire statewide high-speed rail network that was expected to follow.

Doing nothing delivers a blow to Florida's deepest desire to convey a can-do, 21st century image to the rest of the world. Doing nothing takes away Central Florida's once-in-a-lifetime chance to be the first and (for a while) only true high-speed rail project in the United States. Doing nothing sacrifices $2.4 billion in federal funds once committed to high-speed rail here but soon likely destined for similar projects in more-welcoming states.

And doing nothing threatens the already-thin ties between Scott and a business community still eager to work with him but confounded by his premature thumbs-down on high-speed rail. Scott said no thanks before eight worldwide private rail consortia could propose ways to run a brand new railroad and protect state taxpayers from bailouts.

Longtime rail proponent and now St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Steinocher warns that Florida runs a big global risk by pulling the rug out from under major foreign rail corporations that had spent considerable time on their bids.

"We led everyone to believe there was this process," he said. Then Scott pulled the plug. "That is not how you stimulate the economy."

All may not be lost just yet, even as a deadline looms for billions in federal dollars to be reallocated to other states. Florida's elected officials and business groups are performing a near-desperate form of triage to save the project. They hope to create a regional consortium of metropolitan planning organizations that could legally receive the fed's $2.4 billion. Then they hope to restructure the Tampa-Orlando line to exclude the state from any financial obligations.

"It feels like a long shot," acknowledged Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who has been hyperfocused for many years on selling rail to the area. A regional rail plan was defeated by Hillsborough County voters last fall.

"This has tremendous costs," said the exasperated mayor, who has a little over a month left in office. In an interview, she detailed those costs.

• Florida, long a donor of its federal gas tax revenues to other states, finally got $2.4 billion in federal funds back in its favor for high-speed rail. Not anymore.

• The first true high-speed rail line in America would have put Tampa Bay on the map. "It's a project we would show off and people would come to see."

• Without adding high-speed rail to the transportation mix, Iorio says, how do we move people around Florida in the 21st century? Just adding more roads and bigger airports come with very high price tags, too.

• She worries we are creating an image to the world of Florida as a state that does not want progress. "What is our message? 'Don't bother.' "

Transportation experts point out the loss of high-speed rail will start to cost Florida dearly as its growing population ages and more people clamor for quality mass transportation, not just more driving.

"Having that transportation alternative in Florida would be a benefit," says Stephen Reich, interim director in Tampa of the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research. "We have been woefully underfunding transportation in this country for a couple of decades."

At the Brookings Institution in Washington, senior research analyst and high-speed rail observer Adie Tomer warns that as gas prices rise and the costs of owning a car increase, "more and more folks will need to rely on other modes to get around."

Let's be clear. This column does not suggest high-speed rail should be built at all costs. Many Floridians have long argued the price tag of the high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando is too much. Ridership will never justify its costs and the time saved over driving from one city to the other on Interstate 4 is insignificant, they say. Besides, without regional rail systems at either end of the high speed rail line, how do passengers get around Tampa or Orlando easily?

All good points. But consider: The Tampa-Orlando line is just the first short leg of what would be a statewide network of high-speed rail, including a second leg of 220 miles connecting Orlando and Miami. Eventually, Jacksonville would be connected, then Atlanta as the rail connections went interstate.

If it ever happens. While the Obama administration wants to invest $53 billion nationwide in high-speed rail in the coming years, intense federal and state budget battles make that increasingly less likely.

It's easy to say the project is too expensive, so we're dropping it and handing back $2.4 billion in federal funds. But there are expenses — some major — that Florida must absorb in not pursuing high-speed rail, too.

Those costs were compounded by the premature scuttling of the deal. Florida is sending the wrong message to businesses looking to put down roots or bid on future game-changing projects: We won't even bother listening to your ideas.

"We are hoping to be seen as the leader of this new type of transportation in the United States, but we risk being seen as less progressive," said Steinocher at the St. Pete Chamber. "Our rail line is flat and does not go over mountains or under the San Francisco Bay. We thought companies could invest here first."

For communities like Tampa Bay and Orlando, Steinocher wonders: How rarely do we get to position ourselves as leaders of a brand new initiative in the United States?

So rare that it may have disappeared all too soon before our eyes. That will cost us.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Scott's rejection of high-speed rail will be costly for Florida's future 02/19/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 20, 2011 2:59pm]

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