Florida's Republican political leaders are fond of saying they want to run government like a business. They have a strange way of showing it. Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon seem to be more concerned about the politics of high-speed rail in Florida than the impact the system could have on the state's economy and future. There is nothing wrong with protecting the state against unforeseen financial losses. But this is a time for vision, not for politicians to score points by pinching pennies at the expense of long-term investment.
The federal government has committed $2.4 billion toward the $2.6 billion estimated cost of a high-speed line between Tampa and Orlando. Scott wants to wait on a new study examining ridership and costs before moving ahead. He sent mixed messages during last year's campaign, first suggesting the state would forgo the line unless it was fully funded by the federal government, and later softening to insist that the line show an unexplained "return" to taxpayers. The governor needs to keep an open mind and not stall the project. Floridians and the business community see a tremendous opportunity that should not be short-circuited by political posturing.
It would be foolish for the state to walk away from high-speed rail because it won't invest a reasonable $280 million to cover the remaining construction costs. Florida's rail plan has always anticipated that the private sector might bring upfront capital to the table. The state's financing arrangement for the system also makes clear that Florida would lease the rail line to a private operator who would be responsible for any cost overruns. So any amount the state might contribute is not only small by comparison, but virtually all the risk already falls to the private sector.
Advocates for rail transit across the nation are notorious for inflating ridership estimates, and the governor reasonably insists that the numbers make sense. But the state has explored high-speed rail along the I-4 corridor for decades, and there is strong revenue potential between two major cities in the fourth largest state, an area also home to the theme park capital of the world. What is unreasonable is for the governor to hold up the bidding process. The state had planned on seeking bids to operate the system in March or April. That time line is now up in the air. And the vacuum the governor's delaying has created has allowed rail opponents to pick apart the financing before an offer has even been put on the table.
Florida will never know whether the numbers make sense until it puts the rail project out to bid. Industry leaders maintain that potential bidders would likely take on the Florida project as a "loss leader" largely for the chance to build the first link in what President Barack Obama envisioned would be a nationwide high-speed rail network. Associated Industries, the state's influential business lobby, announced this month that it would make a major push to get the bidding process back on track. AIF's Barney Bishop is right: Give the private sector a chance to show its commitment. Florida can always pull the plug down the road. But why delay an opportunity to leverage billions of dollars in federal funds, which would simply be diverted to other states?