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Florida gets more time to vie for high-speed rail money

WASHINGTON — It's a high-speed, high-stakes game of he-said, he-said — and one confusing mess.

The nation's No. 1 transportation official on Friday gave a burst of hope to backers of a high-speed rail project in Florida by saying Gov. Rick Scott asked for more information on a proposal and therefore he was extending the deadline a week.

But Scott later said it was the official who pushed for more time and insisted he remains convinced there's no way to alleviate financial risk to the state. "I believe high-speed rail is a federal boondoggle, as I said more than a week ago."

So why would the state's top executive, who ran on his business credentials, agree to wait another week?

"I'm probably too respectful," Scott told the Times/Herald after leaving a meeting of Republican governors at the Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown.

Through it all ran another thread — the possibility of some Republican state lawmakers suing the governor to prevent him from killing the long-planned project. They contend he overstepped his authority, and on Thursday, people behind the effort openly hoped LaHood would grant more time so they could prepare the lawsuit.

Finally, tea party members who have rallied around Scott implored him not to buckle and implied he would pay a political price for doing so.

• • •

The saga began more than a week ago when Scott said he was rejecting $2.4 billion the federal government was providing for the 84-mile line connecting Orlando and Tampa.

Last Sunday he opened the door a crack, or so it seemed, by saying he would look at an alternative proposal to take it out of state hands. On Thursday, a day before a federal deadline to come up with a deal, Scott rejected the plan, which called for the cities of Orlando, Tampa, Lakeland and Miami to form a coalition to put the project out to bid.

Then came Friday's shocker. At 2 p.m., U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued a statement saying he had given Florida one more week to work out the deal.

"This morning I met with Governor Rick Scott to discuss the high-speed rail project that will create jobs and economic development for the entire state of Florida," LaHood said. "He asked me for additional information about the state's role in this project, the responsibilities of the Florida Department of Transportation, as well as how the state would be protected from liability. . . .

"He has committed to making a final decision by the end of next week. I feel we owe it to the people of Florida, who have been working to bring high-speed rail to their state for the last 20 years, to go the extra mile."

Scott said he did not ask for additional time.

Still, in an interview with the Times/Herald, he said he would meet with local leaders to hear their plan. He was reminded the proposal was shared with his office Wednesday.

"Yeah," Scott conceded, "and the state is still taking risk." Asked if anything had changed, he replied, "No, nothing's changed."

The prospect of another week elicited cautious cheers from backers of the plan who were feeling decidedly whiplashed Friday.

"I am grateful the governor has agreed to listen to the facts on how the state will have no financial responsibility," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who a day earlier ripped into Scott as a stubborn, Obama-hating partisan. "There is too much at stake for us not to try everything we can."

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said, "Well, anything that gives this project hope is a good thing."

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, highlighted the thousands of jobs that would be created. "The plan we presented the governor met every test he mentioned and is a viable way to make high-speed rail and associated jobs a reality in Florida and not other states," she said. "I hope that with additional time, Gov. Scott takes a closer look and agrees."

• • •

The additional time comes as good news to one Republican state senator, Thad Altman of Melbourne, who is considering taking legal action against the governor to save the project.

Altman said he believes Scott violated the constitutional limits of his executive authority by killing the project after the Legislature had voted to move forward with it.

He said he could not comment on any specifics of a potential lawsuit.

"There's some activity going on," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg. "There's some legal research that's been done. But I'm not sure if a plaintiff has been determined or a law firm that will handle the case has been determined. There are active efforts going to find both."

Latvala said he's not participating in the lawsuit, but he supports taking drastic steps to bring high-speed rail to Florida.

"If someone else wants to step forward and do it, more power to them," Latvala said. "It's a once-in-our-lifetime opportunity to get this train built."

If Scott changes his mind, it would likely have major political fallout, raising the ire of his tea party base.

"If I was him I wouldn't run for office again. Political career? Done. He has stood up strong against this," said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party. "This would be a game changer in the minds of the tea party. There would be huge protests."

Karen Jaroch, a tea party activist from Tampa who urged Scott to reject high-speed rail in a meeting earlier this month, agreed.

"Our position is we are 14 trillion plus dollars in debt. This is monopoly money. We don't have this money. We're borrowing from foreign countries, and that is further increasing our debt and deficit payments, or we're printing more money, which causes inflation. It's the principal of the matter," she said. "We've met and we've ranked some of our priorities and defeating high-speed rail was at the top of the list."

Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who once backed rail but last week came out against it, said his position was simple and another week would not change anything: "No means no."

Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report.

Respectfully disagreeing

2:02 p.m. Friday

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood releases a statement:

"This morning I met with Governor Rick Scott to discuss the high-speed rail project that will create jobs and economic development for the entire state of Florida. He asked me for additional information about the state's role in this project, the responsibilities of the Florida Department of Transportation, as well as how the state would be protected from liability. I have decided to give Governor Scott additional time to review the agreement crafted by local officials from Orlando, Tampa, Lakeland and Miami, and to consult with his staff at the state Department of Transportation. He has committed to making a final decision by the end of next week. I feel we owe it to the people of Florida, who have been working to bring high-speed rail to their state for the last 20 years, to go the extra mile."

4:30 p.m. Friday

Gov. Rick Scott answers questions from Times staff writer Alex Leary:

So what's going on here? "I think the project is a project that he'd like to have happen, and they haven't been able to show me how the state of Florida taxpayers are not on the hook."

So why not just say no to him? Why not just say, "Thank you for your consideration and time but this is my stance?" "I'm probably too respectful. I always try to respect people. But in the end, my position remains the same. They're going to have to make sure I'm very comfortable that there's no risk to the taxpayers of the state."

So just to be clear, is there any opportunity here at all? "My position has been . . . I opposed it because I was concerned about the taxpayers of the state. No one's convinced me that we won't have the same problem."

So nothing has changed in your mind? "No, nothing's changed."

So what will you do then? "If they'll send me a proposal . . . If there's local leaders that would like to meet and explain (if) there's some way . . . I'll meet with somebody. But I've not seen anything at all."

But they did send you something, right? "Yeah, and the state is still taking risk."

Was Secretary LaHood at all convincing? "No."

How about this talk of a lawsuit, some of the state senators have suggested you overstepped your authority. What's your reaction? "My job is as governor of the state to act in the best interest of the taxpayers and that's what I'm doing."

Times staff

Florida gets more time to vie for high-speed rail money 02/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 25, 2011 11:19pm]
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