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As Gov. Scott pauses, two studies question viability of high-speed rail project

TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott's decision to hit the pause button on high-speed rail in Florida has created a void that is quickly getting filled with reports questioning the viability of the project.

Two separate national groups have issued analyses in recent weeks finding fault with cost and ridership projections.

One, from the libertarian Reason Foundation, projects that the price for building the rail line could more than double, leaving Florida taxpayers on the hook. The other, from a New York-based planning advocacy group, ranks the proposed line well below other prospective regional links due largely to comparatively spread-out population centers.

Meanwhile, one of Florida's leading business trade groups is pushing back, announcing last week that it was forming a new coalition to ensure "this valuable project remains on track."

"The Orlando to Tampa project will not only bring 5,000 construction jobs to Florida at a time when we desperately need them," said Associated Industries of Florida president and chief executive Barney Bishop III in a statement, "but will also make an international impression as the home of the first high-speed rail of its kind in this country."

Rail advocates have grown increasingly anxious in recent months as Scott has made good on a campaign promise to seek a feasibility study of the project before moving forward. At stake is $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money that would pay for most of the construction.

The state Department of Transportation had been slated to start the bidding process this month.

Against that backdrop, the Reason Foundation issued its report nearly two weeks ago. Using estimates for a proposed rail line in California, it projects the Tampa-to-Orlando link could cost $3 billion more than estimated.

Research by the Reason Foundation and the study's main author, Wendell Cox, regularly offers a skeptical view of rail, so the findings are not particularly surprising. What's notable is the work was overseen by Robert Poole, a foundation director who served on Scott's transition team for transportation issues.

"It's understandable that some are dreaming of flashy high-speed rail trains carrying tourists and residents between the two cities," Poole said in a news release. "When you look at realistic construction costs and operating expenses you see these trains are likely to turn into a very expensive nightmare for taxpayers."

Calls and e-mail questions to the governor's office weren't returned and state transportation officials declined to comment.

The second study was released last week by America 2050, which advocates high-speed rail projects connecting densely populated cities. It ranked Florida's rail initiative low compared with other potential corridors largely because it would connect cities where homes and jobs are dispersed. Orlando and Tampa, in particular, also don't have existing local rail systems to get people easily to other places.

The group later said its report was not meant to pan high-speed rail in Florida, but was intended as a guide to future rail planning. It noted that tourism traffic wasn't factored into the report and said Florida could serve as a good demonstration project.

"We think the importance for the nation of having a high-speed rail train on the ground that Americans can ride is essential," said American 2050 director Petra Todorovich.

Rail advocates say being first will give Florida leverage.

The state plans to ask bidders to guarantee construction costs and agree to cover operating expenses with fare revenue.

Companies will be asked to pay $280 million still needed to build the rail system, said Kevin Thibault, executive director of the Florida Rail Enterprise.

In exchange, they'll get a long-range contract and an edge on winning future U.S. rail work.

"If nobody will give us that, there won't be any bids," said C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the retired Lakeland insurance magnate who has led a yearslong effort to build high-speed rail in Florida.

Bishop echoed those sentiments last week, saying companies should be able to prove they can build and run the train system without subsidies.

"Let's give the private sector a chance to show us the level of risk and investment it is willing (to) commit in order to launch high-speed rail in Florida," he said. "Decisions to abandon the project can always be made further down the road if the conditions are not ideal."

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, chairman of the House transportation and infrastructure committee, met with Scott on Monday.

"I personally don't believe anymore taxpayer money, federal or state, should go into it and he shares that view," Mica said. "What we have to do is attract the investment from the private sector, and I think we're going to do that together."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

As Gov. Scott pauses, two studies question viability of high-speed rail project 01/17/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 7:29am]

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