For once, Florida stands to get more than its fair share of federal dollars for a transportation project. The Obama administration's announcement that it will send another $342 million to build high-speed rail between Orlando and Tampa means the entire construction cost is now covered. Gov.-elect Rick Scott should accept the money and embrace a regional project that will provide a tremendous economic boost to the Central Florida economy.
This project has been decades in the making, and now the federal government would cover $2.39 billion of the $2.6 billion cost. The state already has agreed to pay $280 million in matching money, which would make up the difference. Where else can the state get such a substantial return on such a modest investment up front?
As Scott and other skeptics debate the merits of high-speed rail and putting up any state dollars, it is important to put this project into broader perspective. This country is far behind China, Japan and other countries in developing high-speed rail to supplement clogged highways and air transportation. Now the Obama administration is determined to start catching up, and it is no accident that it has anted up three times now for the 85-mile Orlando-to-Tampa route.
Unlike other proposed high-speed rail corridors, the property for this one along Interstate 4 is in public hands. The environmental analysis and the ridership studies are finished. Engineering and site work already is under way, and more contracts are expected to be awarded in the coming months. The rail line would include stops at Orlando International Airport, Disney World, the Orange County Convention Center, Polk County and downtown Tampa. The business community strongly supports the project, and so do prominent elected leaders from Tampa Bay to Orlando.
Scott's inclination to ask more questions about the project is prudent for a new governor who has much to learn. But it is short-sighted to insist that the federal government pay for the entire cost, given the expected return in jobs and economic stimulus. As he studies the role of private business, Scott also will discover that the state always anticipated hiring a private operator to maintain and run the system — and share the financial risk.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, continues to raise concerns as the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He once again fretted last week about Tampa's lack of light rail to connect to the high-speed trains and suggested the Florida project could initially be limited to the Orlando area. It makes no sense to turn high-speed rail into a local commuter line, but Mica does send a message that Tampa Bay needs to continue to push for light rail despite last month's referendum defeat in Hillsborough. The Pinellas Tourist Development Council wisely voted last week to urge Scott to approve the high-speed rail project and sees it as critical to tourism development.
High-speed rail from Orlando to Tampa is just the first piece of a bigger puzzle. Environmental studies will be done on the Orlando to Miami high-speed extension. Orlando is working on its light-rail system that will have to one day connect to high speed, and Tampa Bay will have to play catch-up on light rail to create an interconnected system extending from Orlando to the Pinellas beaches. It would be foolish to turn down federal money that will pay for more than 90 percent of this first high-speed rail line. Scott should have the vision to see that this initial investment will produce even greater benefits in the decades to come.