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As Florida says no, other states scramble for high-speed rail money

President Barack Obama’s rail initiative money has been rejected by Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, and now, in Florida.

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President Barack Obama’s rail initiative money has been rejected by Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, and now, in Florida.

WASHINGTON — Anyone want $2.4 billion?

New York does. California, too.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott's decision Wednesday to reject federal high-speed rail funding dealt a significant blow to one of President Barack Obama's domestic priorities and set off a scramble by other states to catch an unexpected windfall.

"Mr. President, let's start in New York," said New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who quickly fired off a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking for him to redirect Florida's money to the Empire State.

Scott's decision, startling as it was, has precedent.

The newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio said no thanks to Obama's rail money late last year, expressing similar doubts as Scott has.

Their loss was others' gain. The combined $1.2 billion was redirected to other states in December — Florida got $342 million.

What's different this time is the scope of Florida's project and the political implications for Obama's vision for a national high speed rail network.

Obama traveled to Tampa the day after his 2010 State of the Union address to announce the funding. He restated the long range goals in his latest State of the Union.

"Within 25 years," he said, "our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail." Last week, Obama called for $53 billion in additional funding.

Florida was a flagship in the national plan, with many of the regulatory headaches already cleared.

But the political climate has shifted in favor of deep spending cuts and concern about budget deficits. Obama has lost some of his allies too. The former governors in Ohio and Wisconsin and in Florida, Charlie Crist, all supported the rail projects.

"He just doesn't have the manpower he once did to back up his priorities," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "It's just the beginning of the frustrations President Obama is going to experience in this new political world."

The initial $8 billion in stimulus funding drew intense competition. The Department of Transportation received 259 applications from 37 states and Washington, D.C., totaling $57 billion.

The other major recipients of high-speed money to date are California, Washington, Illinois, New York and states along the New England Corridor.

There is still a chance Florida's project can be salvaged. Lawmakers in Washington are working on a way to bypass the governor. But if those hurdles cannot be overcome, Florida's billions will go elsewhere.

"While we are aware of the resistance among some to spend money in our current economic environment, the truth is that only bold investments in our nation's infrastructure will help us build a foundation for a stronger future, compete in the global economy and improve national security," Slaughter said in her letter to LaHood.

California was eager to show off its willingness, too. "We know how to use money reallocated from other states — we've already won more than half the money reallocated from Ohio and Wisconsin," said Rachel Wall, spokeswoman for the California high-speed rail authority.

The state already has $5.5 billion to begin construction in 2012 and estimates it will create 100,000 jobs over five years.

"High-speed rail will maintain California's economic strength and our ability to move people and goods throughout the state as we grow to a 50 million population by 2030," Wall said.

In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire said, "If other states don't want this funding, Washington state is ready to put it to work."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.

As Florida says no, other states scramble for high-speed rail money 02/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 10:27am]
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