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High-speed rail advocates say they can save project, but Scott doesn't budge

TAMPA — As high-speed rail advocates on Monday outlined a plan to save the Tampa to Orlando project through a partnership of local governments, Gov. Rick Scott brushed off the very idea.

"I don't see any way that we're not going to be on the hook," Scott said.

The governor said he remained convinced that taxpayers could get stuck with "cost overruns, the operating costs and, if it ever gets shut down, the $2.4 billion that we would have to pay back."

Hours earlier, local and federal officials unveiled a plan designed to protect the public from those costs.

"We are working together to keep the high-speed rail plans alive in Florida and keep the thousands of jobs right here," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

They proposed having two or more local governments join to create a new independent regional agency that could receive the federal rail funds Scott rejected last week, then hire a private company to build and run the bullet train.

Key to the idea is that the private vendor would be required to assume all financial risks for building and running the bullet train.

Neither the state nor local governments would be responsible for any construction cost overruns, operating deficits from low ridership or repayment of grant funds if the project failed, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said.

"The taxpayer is protected," she said.

Federal Department of Transportation officials were working closely with the Florida coalition, lending legal and technical support. Some officials might fly to Florida, perhaps today, to meet with stakeholders.

Still, the proposal faces at least two big hurdles.

The first is Scott himself. The state would have to grant the new agency the right of way along the Orlando-Tampa route and provide technical assistance. The idea would fail without Scott's approval and partnership from the state DOT, Tampa City Attorney Chip Fletcher said.

Backers hope to have the plan before Scott in the next day or so. Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has given Florida rail backers until Friday to come up with a plan to get around Scott's objections.

The second hurdle could come from the company or companies that would build and run the train.

"If no private vendor is willing or able to provide the necessary financial guarantees, then the project could not go forward," Iorio said.

On Sunday, Scott sounded willing to look at a new plan during a chat at the Daytona 500 with Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, though he doubted anything could reduce financial risk to taxpayers.

Asked Monday whether Nelson was wrong to conclude that Scott had left the door open on high-speed rail, the governor said: "I'm convinced it doesn't work."

Brian Hughes, Scott's spokesman, said "a cordial conversation at the Daytona 500 does not change the governor's principled position on protecting the taxpayers of Florida."

The plan outlined Monday would rely on state law that allows local governments to create independent regional agencies.

Nelson is taking the lead on the effort, which includes Castor; U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville; Iorio; Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer; and Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields.

Fields compared the approach to one used for international airports: The federal government makes a substantial investment in infrastructure, then the private sector flies the planes and runs the airport concessions.

"We can take the general framework of that model and make it work for us," Fields said.

On Monday, the Lakeland City Commission voted unanimously to support the effort. It would not be necessary for every local government along the route to join the new agency, Fletcher said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has agreed in principle to a plan placing "all of the financial risks with the private sector and only the private sector," Iorio said.

Federal transportation officials would retain oversight of the grant to ensure that the company selected had the ability to provide a financial guarantee for the project.

If the project failed, the federal government's recourse would be to the rail operator, not the state or local governments, Iorio said.

The vendor also would be expected to cover a $280 million state match that goes along with some of the federal funding.

In California, high-speed rail planners told lawmakers last year that a revenue guarantee from the public probably will be needed to line up private financing for that state's bullet train, the Los Angeles Times reported.

On Monday, Florida backers of high-speed rail said the companies looking at their project have never said they expect such a guarantee.

Tampa Bay and Central Florida business development professionals said they hoped the new proposal eases Scott's concerns.

"We believe this project will have an immeasurable benefit to the state, not only now, but in the future," said Stuart Rogel, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional marketing organization.

Reaction among state lawmakers was mixed.

"If there's a way to do it without leaving the state exposed to an unfunded liability, absolutely, we're interested to see that," Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon said. But he added: "I'm skeptical that there's a way to do it without leaving the state exposed."

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he understands the governor's concerns but would like to give the private sector a chance to weigh in.

"It's probably a tall order to do it in a way that the state of Florida would not be on the hook," Weatherford said. "But if the private sector can prove it, I'm open to it. We'll just have to wait and see what the proposals are."

Meanwhile, a noontime rally outside Tampa City Hall drew a boisterous crowd of both rail supporters and opponents.

One opponent dressed as the Grim Reaper and carried a sign saying, "Death to High Speed Rail."

Others came from the Tampa, North Pinellas and Winter Haven chapters of the tea party-supported 9-12 Project.

"There is not one mass transit rail system in this entire country that is profitable, self-sustaining," said Sixten Larsen of Clearwater, a member of the North Pinellas 9-12 Project.

As rail proponents spoke, anti-rail protesters tried to drown them out. One woman shouted "No to rail!" during Tampa mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik's entire speech, while bystanders blocked her face with signs and cursed at her.

As the antirail group grew in numbers and volume, supporter Norwood Orrick watched with a dejected look. With their "No Tax for Tracks" signs, the other side was well-organized, he said, but spouted misinformation.

"It's an economic engine, just like an airport or seaport," said Orrick, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "I think it's just foolish to throw it away."

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Janet Zink contributed to this report.

Watch the rally

See video of Monday's rally in Tampa and read previous coverage of high-speed rail at links.tampabay.com.

High-speed rail advocates say they can save project, but Scott doesn't budge 02/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 12:43am]

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