BROOKSVILLE — As state and federal officials scramble to find a way to bring $2.4 billion to Florida for high speed rail, they aren't getting help from U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent.
Gov. Rick Scott did the right thing this week by saying no thanks to the money that would have paid for a rail line between Tampa and Orlando, Nugent said.
The Spring Hill Republican agreed with Scott's reasoning that the project is too costly for cash-strapped state and federal governments. And, like Scott, Nugent took a shot at President Obama, who considered Florida's rail project the flagship of a $53 billion nationwide rail network.
"The fact of the matter is that the federal government is spending money it doesn't have," Nugent said in a statement Thursday. "The president's goal … is the epitome of 'it would be nice to have' spending. We're running a $1.7 trillion deficit. When we can't afford our basic obligations, we certainly don't have tens of billions in extra money for 'nice to have' projects."
In that context, Nugent said, Scott's decision "is clearly a necessary and responsible choice."
"I just hope that the money is used to pay down part of our $14 trillion national debt," said Nugent, whose sprawling district includes all of Hernando County and the central and eastern portions of Pasco County.
Nugent couldn't be reached for followup questions Friday.
It's unlikely the money would go toward the national debt or any other purpose. The funding has already been committed to high speed rail, and lawmakers from New York and California have asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to give those dollars to their states.
"If (Nugent) can convince his colleagues to use that money to pay down the debt, then more power to him," State Sen. Mike Fasano said. "But guess what? That's not going to happen."
Scott predicted construction cost overruns would cost Florida $3 billion, and that low ridership would have required state subsidies. But he drew criticism from members of both major parties for his decision to derail a bipartisan project that has been decades in the making.
The rail line would have skirted the southern edge of the Nugent's district, which includes a swath of Polk County immediately north of Interstate 4. A stop also was planned for Polk. That would likely have meant the district enjoying a share of thousands of construction jobs and a piece of any economic development the line would create.
Nugent's stance puts him at odds with fellow Republicans at every level of government, including three of four lawmakers in Hernando County's state delegation.
State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, called Scott's move disappointing, saying he should have waited for private consortiums to bid on the project.
Seven teams were planning to bid on the project representing companies from 11 different countries, all experts in building and operating high speed rail systems, Dockery said. The groups had agreed to design, build, operate and maintain the rail system for a fixed price, with no cost overruns and no subsidies.
"It was my hope and expectation that the governor would have allowed these teams to submit proposals before pulling the plug on this true public/private partnership that had little risk to the state and tremendous return to Floridians," Dockery said in a statement Wednesday.
On Thursday, Dockery, one of Scott's first Senate supporters, co-authored a letter urging LaHood to give the money to Florida anyway.
Fasano, R-New Port Richey, also supported Scott's candidacy. Echoing other officials, Fasano said the governor should have at least waited for the Florida Department of Transportation to finish a ridership study.
"I believe this was a great opportunity for us to create thousands of jobs for years to come," Fasano said.
Rejecting the money is essentially handing back what is owed to the state, he said.
"For every dollar Florida citizens send to Washington, we get about 88 cents back for transportation projects," Fasano said. "That $2.4 billion, in my opinion, is a drop in the bucket compared to what the federal government owes the state of Florida."
State Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, said he wasn't upset by Scott's move.
"I don't have a tremendous amount of grief over what the governor did," Schenck said. "I certainly understand his reasoning."
But even Schenck agreed Scott should have waited to evaluate the bids for the project.
State Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, said he supports rail but said no public money at all should be spent for it.
"It's got to be private industry," Smith said. He said he's hopeful Congress will spend the funds elsewhere.
Nugent is one of dozens of vocal House freshmen who have taken a hard-line stance on the federal budget. He is among the most fiscally conservative members continuing to push GOP leaders to fulfill the party's Pledge to America promise to cut $100 billion from the current year's federal budget despite having just seven months to do it.
The federal government is now operating under a temporary measure that has kept funding at last year's levels.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]