Gov. Rick Scott has another opportunity to define himself this week. He can add credibility to his claims that he places principles over politics by canceling the expensive SunRail commuter rail project in the Orlando area. Or he can bow to pressure from Central Florida and let the project go forward like just another calculating politician.
Scott created this litmus test for himself. He killed the $2.4 billion high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando because he said he was worried about the cost, suspicious about ridership projections and skeptical of the jobs it would create. SunRail would cost the state more money, expect far fewer riders and create far fewer jobs. It would be inconsistent at best to kill a high-speed rail line that would have boosted the regional economy and allow a regional commuter line to nowhere to proceed.
SunRail was a dubious project from the start, and the federal government considers it one of the least cost-effective rail projects in the country. It would stretch 61 miles from Poinciana north through Orlando and Winter Park to DeLand. Trains would run along existing CSX track and not stop at Orlando International Airport or Disney World. In fact, trains would run only every 30 minutes during rush hour and every two hours most of the rest of the day. No wonder it is expected to serve just a few thousand riders a day at first. That is more of a theme park ride than reliable commuter service.
As Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, has argued, the SunRail project is a bad financial deal for the state. It would overpay CSX to use the company's tracks, and CSX would use most of the $432 million to upgrade other tracks and facilities for rail. The state would pay at least $585 million to build the commuter line, split construction cost overruns with local governments and cover operating losses for the first seven years. How could Scott rationalize that expense after killing a high-speed rail line that would not have cost the state a nickel to build and would not have put Florida on the hook for any construction cost overruns or operating losses?
Scott has held up SunRail contracts and is expected to decide whether to let the project move forward by Friday. He is under considerable pressure to approve it from powerful Central Florida politicians such as Republican state House Speaker Dean Cannon of Winter Park and U.S. Rep. John Mica, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee. But Scott ignored the pressure from the Obama administration and broad bipartisan support within Florida for high-speed rail. A governor who claims to act on philosophy rather than political concerns cannot have a firm but flexible backbone.
The governor also could punt and contend he lacks the constitutional authority to kill a rail project that has been approved by the Legislature. But that's exactly what he did when he killed high-speed rail, and the Florida Supreme Court let him get away with it. The situation is not much different here. Either the state's chief executive believes he has the authority to act unilaterally in these spending decisions or he doesn't.
Scott killed a high-speed rail project that would have been a model for the nation and declared he was acting on principle. Let's see if he sticks with his principles on a far less defensible commuter rail line or turns out to be another deal-cutting governor protecting his backside.