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Plans floated to keep Florida's high-speed rail money

Advocates for high-speed rail in Florida were hustling to keep it alive late Friday, cobbling plans to accept the federal money Gov. Rick Scott rejected this week.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, floated a proposal to dramatically shrink the project to an Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World link, cutting Tampa and Lakeland out of the mix, for now.

Mica, chairman of the House transportation committee, said an initial 21-mile starter train, with a stop at the Orange County Convention Center, shows the best ridership potential and could even turn a profit. Some portion of the $2.4 billion in federal grant money would flow to Orange and Osceola counties and the city of Orlando. The three governments would forge a compact to solicit bids and oversee construction of the project, and other partner governments could be added later, he said.

The shorter distance likely would take much of the high speed out of high-speed rail in Florida. The trains have to travel several miles to reach speeds of 160 mph or more and slow down well in advance of stops.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, shared a legal opinion from Tampa City Attorney Chip Fletcher. It contends that there are a variety of ways local governments could team up to create an umbrella government to accept grant money and oversee the rail project. And Fletcher's opinion states that either the Florida Department of Transportation or the Legislature could assign the federal grant money over to the newly created agency.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood gave state lawmakers a week to come up with a plan to keep the money from going to other states.

"And since Secretary LaHood gave us one week from today, everyone went to work today," Castor said.

Scott's office had no reaction, though he has said he is no more eager to let local governments bear the risk of cost overruns than he is state taxpayers.

"I don't believe we should be trying to push our counties into taking an irresponsible act of taking the risk of a high-speed rail project," he said Thursday. With the state owning the land on which rail would lie, any undertaking likely still would require his blessing.

Mica said his "partial project rescue plan" should answer Scott's concerns.

"The ridership numbers for this 21-mile corridor would be some of the best in the United States and the world, and I believe could also return revenue to each of the participating partners," Mica said.

The jockeying came after talk of a rescue plan was turning doubtful, especially in Tallahassee.

A day after 26 state senators signed a letter condemning Scott's decision and asking federal authorities for time to devise a Plan B, there was rapidly diminishing desire among state legislators to pick a fight over the matter.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a 2012 Republican U.S. Senate candidate and former rail supporter, said Friday that he agrees with Scott's decision. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Haven, a rail advocate, reiterated that he empathizes with the governor's rationale.

"I'm not aware of any activities legislatively to try to get around the governor," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, chairman of the Senate transportation committee who had signed the letter rebuking Scott. "The House and Senate leaders have spoken on the issue, and I don't see any appetite to do anything at this point that they're not in synch with."

Even State Sen. Paula Dockery, the Lakeland Republican who on Thursday collected petition signatures from fellow senators, was taking a breather.

"Wow!" she posted on her Facebook page about 5:30 p.m. "I just enjoyed an hour walk on the beach with no phone just my iPod. So this is what a real life feels like? Nice!"

Still, several local leaders worked to come up with an end-run, some reaching out to their congressional representatives. Their efforts focused on identifying another entity rather than the state to accept the federal stimulus dollars and oversee construction and operations.

Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, noted that federal guidelines are specific about what entities can accept the money. And it doesn't appear planning agencies such as his fit the bill, he said, based on his lay reading.

Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, said his agency also is not listed as an eligible recipient of federal grant dollars. He noted that the seven-county planning board is just three years old and doesn't have the staffing for such a large undertaking.

"I think we have to be intellectually honest," Duncan said. "Unless it really is credible, I'm not sure we would want to go down that road."

Former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena is helping organize a "Rally for High Speed Rail" in downtown Tampa on Monday in conjunction with the group Liveable Tampa Roundtable. The rally is scheduled for noon at City Hall Plaza, at the southeast corner of East Kennedy Boulevard and Franklin Street.

Repeatedly, local officials expressed frustration that Scott did not at least seek bids for the project, to determine the willingness of private vendors to bear the risk of cost overruns, before making his decision. Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, a Republican who also sits on the board of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, noted that his agency was not contacted by the governor's office, though it would seem a prime source of important information for such a decision.

Though Scott regularly cites his business experience, Hibbard said his seeming disinterest in getting as much information as possible seems to counter sound practice.

"It concerns me because I don't think he's taking in all perspectives," Hibbard said. "I think any businessman will tell you, when they first begin a new endeavor, one of the first things they want to learn is what they don't know.

"Sadly, I don't think our governor has done his due diligence."

Times/Herald staff writers Michael C. Bender and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Plans floated to keep Florida's high-speed rail money 02/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 18, 2011 11:16pm]

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