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A Times Editorial

Taking the risk out of high-speed rail

A bipartisan group of federal, state and local leaders should continue its good-faith, last-ditch effort to satisfy Gov. Rick Scott's concerns about high-speed rail until Friday's federal deadline to accept the construction money. The project holds tremendous promise for Florida and Tampa Bay, and the governor should reconsider its merits and the lengths that private and public officials are going to make it work. Two days of private talks this week give both sides a chance to step back from the political posturing over federal spending and focus on what's best for the Sunshine State.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood deserves credit for giving Florida an extra week to reconsider Scott's decision to reject $2.4 billion in federal money. The governor listed three specific concerns: the state would be obligated to shoulder construction cost overruns, pay for operating losses and repay the federal grant if the rail line failed. Each of those concerns can be addressed if the project goes out to private bid or if local governments are allowed to assume control of the project.

Scott also deserves credit for allowing talks to proceed this week. The closed-door discussions make it impossible to tell whether all sides are serious about finding a solution or more interested in political cover. But that will be evident soon enough. And already, the meetings have crystallized in a very public way how much flexibility Florida has to accommodate the governor and build the backbone of a 21st century transportation system.

The cleanest approach would be to follow the plan developed over decades for the state to ask private contractors to bid on the $2.7 billion, Tampa-Orlando line. The federal government has agreed to pay $2.4 billion of the cost, and documents already prepared by the state call for the company that wins the contract to cover any construction or operating cost overruns. Private bidders are expected to be willing to shoulder the financial risk to get in on the first project of an envisioned national network. There is no harm and finding out by seeking bids.

There are other ways to further guarantee the governor that Florida taxpayers would be protected. One arrangement calls for the state to hand off the deal to an entity composed of local representatives in cities along the rail line. That entity would be the conduit to bring the federal money to Florida, oversee the bidding process and contract with a private operator. The private sector still would have to cover any start-up or operating losses. The only difference is that a new regional transit agency — and not the state — would act on the government's behalf.

The governor would have to bless several other details. The state would have to transfer control of 85 miles along Interstate 4 for use as a high-speed rail corridor. And the state's Department of Transportation would be asked to provide technical assistance to the project. That is a small and sensible role for the DOT to play. It is Florida's lead transportation agency, and it shaped the high-speed plan now on the table. It also has the staff and funding available to start work on the rail plan immediately.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio put it well: This is a process for effectively privatizing high-speed rail in Florida with no risk to taxpayers. It satisfies Scott's practical issues. What more could he want?

Taking the risk out of high-speed rail 02/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 6:36pm]
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