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Gov. Rick Scott's office, federal officials talking high-speed rail; Scott unmoved

TALLAHASSEE — Federal transportation officials have spent the past two days talking with Gov. Rick Scott's office in hopes of salvaging a high-speed rail project linking Tampa and Orlando.

But Scott remains convinced that no deal can be structured to remove all financial risk to the state.

"Nothing in the discussions so far alleviates the governor's concerns that Florida's state taxpayers would still be on the hook," spokesman Brian Hughes said.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials began discussions with the staff in Scott's office on Tuesday and they continued Wednesday.

Also involved is Tampa City Attorney Chip Fletcher and possibly other local officials.

Little is being said about the discussions, reflecting the political sensitivity. Neither the governor's office nor the Transportation Department would provide the names of those involved, or whether the talks were substantive.

Legal issues are likely at the forefront, as the central issue has been how to alleviate financial risk to the state.

A coalition of state and local officials have until Friday to come up with a plan to save $2.4 billion in federal funding.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is working to preserve Florida's project but also has several states angling for Florida's share, including California and New York.

The still-emerging proposal calls for local governments, including Tampa and Orlando, to form a partnership that would take responsibility for putting the project out to bid.

Proponents think they can structure the deal so that a private company would guarantee there be no financial risk to the state.

Several people close to the talks said more concrete details could be released today.

"Right now we have gone as far as we can," said Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields, declining to go into details about the state of talks because the parties have agreed not to reveal them at this time. "We have to await an answer until we know what's next."

Fields said the basic template of governments along the rail line teaming up to accept federal money for high-speed rail hasn't changed.

Scott and other critics think there is no way to alleviate the risk to the state. The state Transportation Department would have to provide technical assistance and grant the right of way along the project route.

Some think Scott acted prematurely, and another Republican questioned Wednesday why the governor did not wait to see bids from private companies.

"Maybe it was just a little too soon to give up," said U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, a former state House speaker.

Still, Webster told the Orlando Sentinel that he did not think people should try to circumvent the governor. "He's the governor, and I believe we should respect that," Webster said.

Meanwhile, state transportation officials are still waiting on the results of a ridership study on the proposed line, due in early March. Scott has doubted that enough people would use the rail system to justify its cost.

Times/Herald staff writers Michael C. Bender, Richard Danielson and Janet Zink contributed to this report.

Gov. Rick Scott's office, federal officials talking high-speed rail; Scott unmoved 02/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 11:13pm]
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