The Obama administration deserves Florida's appreciation for contributing more than $2 billion toward the $2.6 billion high-speed rail that would link Tampa and Orlando. The federal government might even come through with half of the remaining $600 million next year. The federal investment could transform transportation and the economy in Central Florida and create tens of thousands of much-needed jobs. Republicans who demand that the federal government pay the entire cost are shortsighted.
Republican Gov.-elect Rick Scott said during the campaign that Florida should reconsider the high-speed project if the federal government fails to fully fund the project. Scott has softened his opposition, but he remains a skeptic. Other leading Florida Republicans also have sent mixed messages. U.S. Sen.-elect Marco Rubio declined to support high-speed during the campaign, citing federal budget woes. And U.S. Rep. John Mica of Winter Park, who is in line to head the House Transportation Committee, said last week he may revisit the spending for high-speed rail, including the Tampa-Orlando route. Mica suggested the Florida project could be scaled back to serve only the Orlando area and its theme parks.
This is no time for Florida's new leaders to shortchange the state. Engineering and site work for the Tampa-Orlando line is already under way. The federal government pledged the money because Florida has the land set aside and most of the planning already done. Washington also committed another $8 million to explore extending the line to Miami — the real moneymaker. Pulling back now makes no sense. And taxpayers should certainly expect their dollars to do more than subsidize a ferry service to Disney or Universal.
The climate is tougher now that Hillsborough voters rejected a sensible plan to serve the county (and the new high-speed rail station in downtown Tampa) with light rail. But Orlando has no light rail link to its high-speed station, either. The important point is that both communities are looking at ways to bring light rail to the high-speed stations. And both have plans to use new, rapid bus service if necessary to get high-speed passengers to where they need to go.
Rail service may have to evolve in Florida, especially amid this down economy. But it presents a tremendous opportunity for the state to grow, ease congestion, link the major cities and tourist destinations and put people to work. Florida rarely gets its fare share of federal dollars, and the state's new Republican leaders should not throw up roadblocks to high-speed rail because of partisan politics.