The federal government is all but begging Florida to apply for federal funding for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has named Florida as a leading contender for some of the $13 billion the federal government wants to spend on high-speed rail in the next five years. The chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee has given Florida a plug. The state's senior U.S. senator, Bill Nelson, is working the phones, too. But the state's political leadership is AWOL. Where is Gov. Charlie Crist, the Senate president, the House speaker and the leaders of the state's Democratic Party?
It would be a terrible waste for Florida to lose this opportunity after having worked for the last quarter-century to secure a high-speed rail line. The state already owns land for a Tampa-Orlando route along Interstate 4. It has completed the necessary environmental and ridership studies. The White House wants "shovel-ready" routes, and the Tampa-Orlando line fits the bill.
But Nelson was worried enough about the state's chances that on July 31 he called out legislative leaders for their lack of leadership. He urged them to express their support "if we are to have any chance of winning funds" for high-speed rail.
Nelson's letter to state Senate President Jeff Atwater, House Speaker Larry Cretul and state Democratic leaders came days before the chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee also gigged Florida for dropping the ball. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said Florida ranked last among all states in spending its share of highway money from the federal stimulus package. As of July, Oberstar said, Florida had begun construction on only 2 percent of its $1.35 billion in stimulus highway projects. In a letter to the governor, he told Crist to "refocus your efforts."
Florida is not only dead last in spending its highway money. It also has gotten the least amount per capita of the $200 billion in stimulus money allocated to the states. You'd think state officials would grab this chance to even the score, especially now that the feds are all but dangling rail money before the state. The governor and state legislative leaders need to get on the stick. Rail takes an enormous chunk of money at the outset to get off the ground. This is Florida's best chance to connect two major metropolitan areas with high-speed rail — and to connect the state with the "world-class" rail system the president wants.