Gov. Rick Scott's decision Wednesday to reject $2.4 billion that would have helped finance high-speed rail drew a swift rebuke from the politicians and business interests who had pushed for the project.
"It's a terrible decision, truly the worst decision I've ever seen by a governor in my 26 years in public life," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "It's wrong on so many levels, where do I begin?"
No one in Tampa Bay had personified efforts to introduce rail as much as Iorio. In her eight years in office, she made a forceful case that the area needed to diversify its transportation network to compete for jobs and improve quality of life. She spent much of Wednesday ripping Scott's decision to dismantle what would have been the nation's first major high-speed rail line.
Iorio said the project would have ushered in a modern transportation system rather than force the area to continue to rely on auto and air travel; returned gas tax money that Florida residents have already paid, rather than ship the money to another state; and provided the slumping construction sector with jobs, reducing unemployment.
Many business leaders had also advocated for rail, mainly as a way to compete with other Sun Belt cities such as Charlotte, N.C.; Austin, Texas; and Phoenix that are perceived to be attracting more corporations because, among other things, they are investing in transit. While business interests were more muted than many elected officials Wednesday, some expressed regret over Scott's decision.
"We are surprised and disappointed," the cross-bay business group Tampa Bay Partnership said in a statement.
Several leaders said they were miffed that Scott didn't wait until a Florida Department of Transportation ridership study was completed. Nor did companies get a chance to bid on the project, which would have made the true costs of the project more clear, said Joel Giles, a Carlton Fields lawyer who chairs the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce's public policy committee.
"The state would have been well-served by the knowledge that would have come with the bids," Giles said. "It leaves us in a quandary. One the one hand, we want to concentrate our growth and development to discourage sprawl, but yet we're not developing the infrastructure we need to concentrate development."
C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the retired Lakeland insurance magnate who has pushed for high-speed rail, slammed Scott, even though his wife, state Sen. Paula Dockery, had backed his candidacy.
"I'd like to congratulate California because they'll probably be getting the billions that Scott is turning away," Dockery said. "And they'll get thousands of jobs that will be created there."
Others who had seemingly advocated for high-speed rail backpedaled. The Florida Chamber of Commerce had supported exploring high-speed rail, spokeswoman Edie Ousley said, but the organization is confident Scott made the right call.
"We're confident in their review process that they have determined the return on investment simply will not be a positive thing for Florida taxpayers at this time," Ousley said.
Scott's decision was cheered by Karen Jaroch, the chairwoman of the Tea Party-supported Tampa 9-12 Project, which successfully campaigned against a Hillsborough light rail referendum last year.
"I think it saves the taxpayers of Florida and the nation a lot of money," she said.
She said rail projects run over budget by an average of 45 percent. And while California may end up with Florida's money, that's okay, Jaroch said. "It won't work there either."
But all the main Tampa mayoral candidates expressed disappointment in the decision.
"This ranks up there as one of the worst decisions I've ever seen," said Ed Turanchik, a longtime advocate for rail. "This project has been supported by a broad spectrum of interests. You had labor, big business, small business, neighborhoods, environmental groups all behind it. It's just a galacticly bad decision."
"It's unfortunate," said Bob Buckhorn. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move this state forward. Instead, it looks like we aspire to mediocrity."
"It's a bad decision, a horrible decision," said Tom Scott.
Candidates Rose Ferlita and Dick Greco were more measured.
"Ultimately, we have to respect what he's done," Ferlita said.
"It looks like the governor has done some research on the subject, and these are his feelings," Greco said. "I'm disappointed it didn't happen. It would have created jobs. But I'm not overly critical."
In Pinellas County, news of the rejected money was greeted with dismay by leaders who have been trying to build a light-rail system that would one day connect to Tampa's rail network.
"One of (Scott's) comments was that this money can be better spent on roads," said St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner. "But that's not really on the table. That money is now going to California. I don't get it. Unless he's making a statement to the federal government, this just doesn't make sense."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writers Jeff Harrington, Bill Varian, Steve Huettel, Mark Albright, Tia Mitchell and David DeCamp contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com