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Plans afoot to find way to build high-speed rail line without state involvement

Gov. Rick Scott's premature rejection of high-speed rail stunned business advocates of the project.

Still, they insist, the governor's decision may be a mere speed bump on the way to the Tampa-Orlando line getting built.

Wheels already are churning to try to convince Scott that high-speed rail is both a long-term economic and immediate jobs winner for struggling Florida.

And if that argument is not persuasive, there's a tougher alternative starting to gain some buzz. Washington officials could simply cut the state out of the loop. The feds could seek federal pre-emption and build the high-speed rail line down the Interstate 4 corridor as a national project. Or the federal government, which already has committed $2.4 billion to the Tampa-Orlando line, could commit to a public-private partnership with little if any risk to the state coffers.

"The governor did a disservice to the state by making what I believe to be a politically based decision rather than an economic one," says Thomas Hart, government relations vice president and general counsel for the U.S. High Speed Rail Association in Washington, D.C. "… This is just a pit stop on the way to bringing high-speed rail to Florida."

Central Florida business leaders question whether the governor — despite his image as a business-thinking CEO — did his homework before announcing his intention not to accept federal dollars for high-speed rail.

Why did Scott reject the rail project so quickly? Had the governor waited, as many as eight high-speed rail consortiums were expected to propose ways to build and operate the rail line. Some of those groups were expected to offer financial commitments to minimize the need for state funds.

"While we respect the governor's desire to make a fact-based decision, we look forward to reviewing in detail the information he used to make this decision," states a release issued jointly by the Tampa Bay Partnership — this metro area's regional marketing group — and the Central Florida Partnership representing Orlando.

Nobody's eager to take on the state's new governor, especially when his "jobs, jobs, jobs" mantra is so in synch with Florida's business community.

But there is clear frustration that Scott has proved inflexible from the start with business leaders trying to make a complex project like high-speed rail come to fruition.

"President Obama and the vice president could have gone anywhere but chose to come to Tampa. They saw the importance of announcing funding for high-speed rail here," says a disappointed Robert Rohrlack, CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Roads, like rail, he reminds us "do not pay for themselves either."

As Wisconsin and Ohio found out when their governors rejected federal money for high-speed rail, those funds got redirected to other high-speed rail lines in other states.

So it may soon happen with the funds meant for Florida. As the Los Angeles Times headline crowed Wednesday: "State bullet train angles for share of $2.4 billion in federal funds." California, as well as Chicago and the northeastern states, are only too happy to take Florida's money.

Time is short. The Tampa Bay Partnership and Central Florida Partnership acknowledge the tight time frame available to restructure a high-speed rail project that insulates the state government and still manages to keep the $2.4 billion in Florida.

Chris Steinocher, newly named CEO at the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, says he understands the pressure on the governor to balance the budget and protect the economy from undue risks.

But — and he asks a good question here — how much risk is there in Florida doing nothing?

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Plans afoot to find way to build high-speed rail line without state involvement 02/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 7:18am]

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