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Gov. Rick Scott, still skeptical on high-speed rail, gives backers some hope

WASHINGTON — High-speed rail backers got a sliver of hope from Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Sunday after he said he would be willing to look at a plan that alleviates financial risk to the state.

Scott, who last week rejected $2.4 billion in federal funding for an Orlando-to-Tampa line, remains highly skeptical, and a formal alternative plan does not yet exist as a Friday deadline set by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood approaches.

"The governor does not believe they can produce a plan that would hold the state completely harmless," spokesman Brian Burgess said.

But U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who pressed Scott on the issue after running into him at Sunday's Daytona 500, remains optimistic.

"The governor presumably would go forward, if the state didn't have any financial responsibility," Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said. He added that Nelson talked with LaHood on Sunday and LaHood "feels like it can be done while also meeting the governor's concerns."

The issue exploded last week when Scott said he would reject federal funding for the long-planned line connecting Orlando and Tampa, largely because the state could be on the hook for billions in unforeseen costs.

That set off a scramble by rail backers to save the deal by diverting the money to some other entity, such as a group of cities or a regional planning group.

LaHood has given the advocates until Friday to come up with something or he'll move to send the money to other states.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Saturday nixed a plan floated by U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, that would have limited the rail line to the Orlando area for now.

Such an idea, however, would fail to meet the stated goal of the project — to move people quickly between metropolitan areas.

Nelson and others, including Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor, want to preserve the entire line.

One possibility was using a regional planning group to, in effect, become a subgrantee to the state. But Nelson's office said Sunday that may not be necessary, citing DOT lawyers.

"They think the existing rail authority is the vehicle," McLaughlin said.

In 2001, the Legislature created the Florida High Speed Rail Authority, which was to plan a system in the state. It was later absorbed into the state DOT.

The idea being floated was that language removing the state's financial obligation could be worked into a plan with companies seeking to build the system.

But that may not satisfy Scott. Another developing plan calls for local governments to team up and create an umbrella organization to accept grant money and oversee the project. Castor has been in talks with Tampa officials on such an arrangement.

Her staff said Sunday she was hopeful a plan could come together soon.

The DOT did not respond to a request for comment but appears to be taking a more active role in trying to ease Scott's concerns. Nelson gave the governor's cell phone number to LaHood.

Nelson and Scott could talk about the deal again Monday as they are both scheduled to attend a ribbon-cutting at an Embraer aircraft facility in Melbourne.

"Sen. Nelson wants to keep working on it until the bell rings," McLaughlin said.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

Gov. Rick Scott, still skeptical on high-speed rail, gives backers some hope 02/20/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 21, 2011 6:55am]
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