The cities of Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando and Miami are performing a valuable service by exploring a final effort to save high-speed rail in Florida. They are considering bidding for $2.4 billion in federal money that Gov. Rick Scott foolishly rejected when he ignored the facts and embraced partisan ideology. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has generously given Florida another chance by asking for bids rather than handing Florida's money to New York, California or another more forward-looking state. The cities will need to be creative and commit for the long haul, but the project's enormous potential is worth a last-ditch pitch.
The cities moved quickly in the past few weeks to try to salvage the rail line after Scott repeatedly told LaHood that Florida would not accept the money. Scott said he based his decision on fears that the line would not attract enough ridership and that state taxpayers could be forced to cover construction or operating overruns. Neither argument is valid; a new study estimates that ridership will be 38 percent more than an earlier estimate that led eight multinational entities to express interest in bidding on the project. And under the terms of the deal, the private operator — not the government — would have built and managed the line and covered any cost overruns. LaHood's senior staff also assured Florida verbally and in writing that the federal government would not ask the state to repay the grants if the project failed.
To the cities' credit, they have desperately searched for a way to work around the governor. Their proposal calls for the cities to create an inter-local agency that would receive the grant money and award the rail contract to a private bidder. The federal government has offered the same assurance to the cities that they would not be asked to repay any grants.
Federal officials have done everything they can, but there are still serious challenges in making a bid for the money by the April 4 deadline. The cities would need technical help from the Florida Department of Transportation. The department would have to permit construction, reroute utilities along Interstate 4 and provide other routine assistance. Scott has said he wants it to focus on other projects.
Also, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is leaving office in April. She and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer have played critical roles in moving the rail project forward. Both candidates in the March 22 runoff to succeed Iorio have expressed support for rail to varying degrees. But it likely will not be a front-burner issue for the next mayor.
Still, the cities should push ahead. High-speed rail between Tampa, Orlando and Miami is too critical for the regional and state economies for the cities to give up. The governor has every reason to support the effort with the minimal amount being asked of the Transportation Department. Local officials are taking ownership of a major public works project — and they are doing it in concert with the private sector. Whether the bid is convincing enough to attract federal rail money and the governor's support is one thing. But the display of local leadership and the governance model for rail are assets that any system could draw from later on. Tampa's next mayor must work with his or her counterparts across the state to ensure that Scott's decision is a temporary setback and not the final word on high-speed rail in Florida.