In an affront to his tea party base and to backers of a Florida bullet train he killed earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott on Friday gave the green light to SunRail, a controversial Orlando-area commuter rail project on hold since he took office.
Critics characterized the move as hypocritical in light of Scott's high-speed rail decision and stated principle of limited government spending, but he defended it by saying SunRail was in the works before he became governor and was so far along he had no choice but to approve it.
"I don't know that I would have made the decision to go forward with this if I had been around three or four years ago," he said in St. Petersburg at the Florida Press Association/Florida Society of News Editors annual meeting. "I walked in with this set of facts."
He said his attorneys told him he would likely lose in court if he was sued for killing the $1.28 billion, 61.5-mile project.
Letting SunRail go wins Scott big points with powerful Central Florida business and political leaders who have made the line a top priority and pledged financial support. They say it is a job creator and economic development tool that offers a mass transit solution to congested roads. Projections put ridership at about 2,150 passengers a day when SunRail opens.
The line connecting Orlando to surrounding communities has been on hold since January, when Scott started a review of $238 million in SunRail contracts.
Agreements require the state to pay $432 million to freight operator CSX Corp. to share its Orlando-area tracks and make upgrades to the company's freight operations elsewhere in Florida. The state is also liable for any accidents that occur on the shared tracks.
Scott insisted SunRail is different from high-speed rail because the state's commitment is capped and Central Florida governments will be responsible for much of the ongoing financial obligations.
"This decision was made after a long, deliberative process," Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said in a news conference. "All stakeholders will be held accountable."
Prasad called SunRail a "judgement day" project. If it fails, it could stop future commuter trains from coming to Florida, he said.
Detractors, though, accused Scott of putting politics before principles.
"He is an insider now. He can no longer say that he is an outsider," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, referring to Scott's pitch on the campaign trail that he was not part of the Florida political establishment.
Joyner was one of two state senators to unsuccessfully sue Scott in the Florida Supreme Court after he rejected $2.4 billion in federal funding for a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando, citing concerns about potential costs to Florida taxpayers.
Although the federal government was prepared to pay for nearly all of the bullet train's construction, Scott continued to fret about possible state expenses.
The line was part of President Barack Obama's vision for a nationwide high-speed rail system.
"It was all anti-Obama," Joyner said. "It's clear the high-speed rail project was rejected purely for political reasons."
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, a champion of high-speed rail and critic of SunRail, decried Scott's decision, calling out the deal's payment to CSX, a Jacksonville-based freight operator.
"It is unclear if when making the decision the governor had a change of heart, if he simply succumbed to the desires of the big money special interests, or if he has a severe case of amnesia and thought that he was supposed to be representing CSX instead of Florida's taxpayers," she said. "When the SunRail/CSX commuter project is viewed from a purely business vantage point, the project falls so far below what a savvy business owner would accept that it is somewhat baffling."
Scott's top attorney, Charles Trippe, previously worked for CSX, but he recused himself from examination of SunRail.
Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party, said that Scott's decision was "influenced by big-money lobbyists" and that the governor "failed to deliver on his promises."
"I really thought he was going to fight more for the taxpayers and wouldn't give up," Wilkinson said. "Tea party members are shaking their heads wondering why Scott did this. In the coming weeks, I am sure Gov. Scott will face disappointed and angry tea party members across Florida."
Others, though, applauded the governor.
"This is as significant for the state as when Henry Flagler brought the railroad to Florida and when President Eisenhower initiated the interstate," said U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "This transportation alternative offers the only real cost-effective, near-term solution for our region's highway congestion and will have tremendous benefits for employment."
Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, commended Scott on "his thoughtful decision," and business groups, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, gave praise.
"The immediate benefits resulting from the construction of SunRail include jobs created for Floridians in the transportation and construction industries, two industries that have been hit the hardest by this economic downturn," said Jose Gonzalez, vice president of governmental affairs for AIF.
Earlier this week, Scott dispatched Prasad to meetings with Orlando-area residents and elected officials to emphasize that they'll be on the hook if SunRail fails. If local governments can't cover the costs, the money will come out of the region's state transportation dollars, which means there will be less money for roads and bridges, Prasad told them.
After rejecting SunRail in two legislative sessions because of concerns about the arrangement with CSX, lawmakers approved the project in a December 2009 special session called by Gov. Charlie Crist to lure federal money for high-speed rail.
Agreements call for the federal government to pay for half of SunRail's $615 million construction costs. The state and local governments will pay 25 percent each.
The state also has liability for any accidents that occur on the tracks that will be shared with CSX freight trains.
Florida and local taxpayers will split payments for construction cost overruns.
The state will cover operating losses for the first seven years of SunRail's operation. Local governments are responsible for operating losses after that.
A grant funding agreement with the U.S. Federal Transit Administration requires trains to be running by May 2014.
Janet Zink can be reached at jzink @sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.