Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Federal officials balk at scaled-back plan for Florida high-speed rail

WASHINGTON — Federal officials on Saturday balked at a scaled-back plan for high-speed rail proposed by a powerful Florida congressman, giving hope to advocates for an entire Orlando-to-Tampa line but underscoring the shaky status of their efforts.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, late Friday announced a plan to dramatically shrink the project to an Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World link.

Mica, chairman of the House transportation committee, contends it's the best way to get the project rolling and overcome the problem presented by Gov. Rick Scott's rejection of $2.4 billion in federal funding.

But Sen. Bill Nelson spoke with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Saturday and said later that federal officials are saying "no" to Mica's plan, which would be limited to 21 miles in the Orlando area. The idea was to connect large metropolitan areas and quickly move people between them.

The Department of Transportation declined comment but did not dispute Nelson's account. Mica was traveling and could not be reached for comment. A spokesman said he was open to feedback from Tampa officials.

"He felt it was critical to put forth something quickly because other states are already lining up to ask for this funding," said spokesman Justin Harclerode.

What happens next is unclear. Mica's sudden plan paired with the apparent disapproval by the Department of Transportation made for a lot of unknowns Saturday, and time is running out.

A loose coalition of Florida officials has until Friday to come up with an alternative that bypasses the state and transfers the money to some other entity, such as a regional transportation board or local government.

A divided approach over how to proceed would hamper their case, particularly with the time crunch.

If they cannot come up with something, Florida's $2.4 billion will be handed out to other states, several of which have eagerly stretched out their palms in the days since Scott's rejection.

Advocates for the full line were surprised, if not taken aback by Mica's plan, released late Friday. They proceeded cautiously Saturday, but disappointment was evident.

"Our goal is to bring as many jobs as possible to the state of Florida and lay a foundation for long-term economic growth," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who has been coordinating with officials in Tampa and Nelson.

"We have the basis for a legal and practical proposal that will accomplish the original goal of high-speed rail, jobs and hope for Florida," Castor said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a rail proponent, criticized a "piecemeal approach."

"I think it's probably a good time now for us all to stop, take a deep breath, and begin to re-evaluate our nation's transportation plan from the bottom up and the top down," he said.

Mica proposed to bring together Orange and Osceola counties with the city of Orlando to build a 21-mile stretch between Walt Disney World and Orlando International Airport.

As for stations, Disney has committed to donate a site valued at $25 million for a stop on its property, according to federal grant applications. A convention center stop is planned for a 20-acre parcel owned by Orange County, and the final station is at Orlando International Airport.

Some thought Mica's plan could work.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from St. Petersburg who chairs the transportation committee, said "more power" to Mica if he "can swing this." It could pave the way for a Tampa leg, Latvala said, and could be done with little help from the governor.

"As long it's in one county or metropolitan area, I would pretty much imagine that could be done with local sponsorship," Latvala said. "The only problem is, I think he could say you can't have DOT right of way. I just can't imagine he wouldn't be reasonable."

But Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Republican state senator from Fort Lauderdale, said if Mica's plan needed any state backing, it wouldn't get hers because 21 miles is too short.

"The purpose of a bullet train is to take you long distances in a short period of time. I don't think the airport to Disney is a long-enough distance. At first glance, it really doesn't seem to make a lot of sense," she said.

Bogdanoff said she never liked the project anyway, and would have preferred that a Miami-to-Orlando route be built first because of its greater ridership potential.

Latvala and Bogdanoff signed a letter last week criticizing Scott for rejecting the federal money, largely they said, over the way Scott handled it.

"He didn't let it go through the process," Bogdanoff said. "The process is important to maintain a democracy. This is not corporate America. This is politics."

Critics of any rail deal say a smaller line does not help the case.

"The bottom line is that building high-speed rail just for the sake of building high-speed rail would be a reckless mistake and it is a perfect example of why the 'stimulus' hasn't worked," said U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Brooksville.

But Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, is just hoping a deal can be worked out.

"If the issue is protecting the taxpayers, then let's work on getting an agreement that does that," he said.

"I honestly believe there's enough taxpayer support to make this happen. … This has evolved over the last 20 years to finally come up with something that can work. Let's not throw away 20 years of work. This is a game-changing project for our community, and we need to be very serious about this fork in the road."

Times staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report.

Federal officials balk at scaled-back plan for Florida high-speed rail 02/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 19, 2011 11:42pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Housing starts fall in July

    Real Estate

    WASHINGTON — The Commerce Department said Wednesday that housing starts fell 4.8 percent in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.16 million. Groundbreakings for multi-family buildings such as apartments slumped 17.1 percent, while single-family house construction slipped 0.5 percent.

    On Wednesday, the Commerce Department reported on U.S. home construction in July. 
[AP file photo]
  2. Pasco doubles tourist tax to finance sports complex

    Tourism

    DADE CITY — Pasco County is doubling its tourist tax to 4 percent to build an indoor sports complex in Wesley Chapel and improve its outdoor boat ramps in west Pasco.

    Pasco County's plan to double its tourist tax on overnight accommodations to 4 percent is intended to help finance a $25 million sports complex in the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel. It  would include a 98,000-quare-foot multipurpose gymnaisium of eight basketball courts and dedicated space for gymnastics, cheerleading and a fitness center. Shown here is the four-court fieldhouse with 50,000-square-feet of space for competitions at  Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex.  Times photo by James Borchuck (2007)
  3. 5 things to do under $5: Where to see solar eclipse, Bucs training camp

    Events

    1 Solar eclipse: Turn around, bright eyes. Monday brings a total eclipse of the sun, and you'll need protective eyewear to see it. The bay area won't be plunged into darkness for a few minutes like the middle of the country, but with solar lenses you can see this rare event. The Museum of Science and Industry, …

    This photo shows a “diamond ring” shape during the 2016 total solar eclipse in Indonesia. For the 2017 eclipse over the United States, the National Science Foundation-funded movie project nicknamed Citizen CATE will have more than 200 volunteers trained and given special small telescopes and tripods to observe the sun at 68 locations in the exact same way.
  4. Florida man has some of Princess Di's wedding cake, plus 13,000 other royal items (w/photos)

    Human Interest

    John Hoatson recalls the day it all began with perfect clarity.

    John Hoatson poses with a photo taken in 2006 when he met Sarah "Fergie"; Ferguson, the Duchess of York, for tea at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in California.
  5. Les Miller on Charlottesville: 'This is not what we should be about'

    Blogs

    TAMPA -- In the aftermath of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., and ahead of today's continued conversation on Tampa's Confederate monument, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller on Wednesday looked to inspire unity in an invocation that a colleague called "inspirational."

    Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller prayed for unity during Wednesday's Hillsborough County Commission meeting, following the violent protests in Charlottesville that left 19 injured and one dead.