There will be no second coming for high-speed rail, because satisfying the tea party movement is more important to Gov. Rick Scott than regional collaboration and hard facts. Scott killed the project (again) Thursday, declaring that Florida would not accept $2.4 billion in federal money for the Tampa-to-Orlando line no matter how well the state would be financially protected. Logic and bipartisan support are no match for a stubborn ideologue.
Scott's predictable announcement came on the eve of today's deadline that federal officials set for Florida to reconsider the governor's initial rejection. The move came after four days of intense, closed-door talks among federal, state and local officials and Scott's attorneys. Rail supporters had worked out a plan to insulate the state from any cost or legal obligations. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and this bipartisan group deserve credit for doing Scott's job and working in good faith on the best outcome for Florida. It is shameful the governor could not similarly rise to the occasion.
Scott based his objections on points originally raised in a study by a libertarian think tank, all of which hinged on flawed facts and assumptions: that the state would be forced to absorb startup and operating losses, and that Florida might have to repay the federal money if the system went bust. But the deal called on the state to contract with a private bidder to build and operate the line. The private contractor would pay for any construction overruns or operating losses. And the federal government also made clear that it would not seek repayment. The meetings this week were to answer Scott's concerns.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio was right to fault Scott's reasoning and his refusal to even allow private companies already interested to put a bid on the table. "In effect," she said in a statement, "the message being sent to eight worldwide business (consortia) across the globe and the United States is don't bother." The only silver lining: The Interstate 4 region was united like never before. Business and government leaders from Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando stepped up to save a project that could have moved the entire region forward.
There are constitutional questions about whether the governor has the power to kill a project so far along the authorization process. If Scott can stretch his authority to kill high-speed rail, he could stretch it to kill SunRail, the Orlando-area commuter rail project that has massive and long-standing state and local tax guarantees. The governor has put SunRail contracts on hold. His final decision on that costly project will reveal whether his rejection of high-speed rail was really about protecting taxpayers or embarrassing the Obama administration.