Gov. Rick Scott rashly acted in his own political interests and sacrificed the best interests of Florida Wednesday by rejecting federal money for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. It is a reckless, devastating decision that has nothing to do with the merits of rail and everything to do with Scott's obsession with courting the tea party movement and fighting the Obama administration. Florida's state legislators and members of Congress should explore every option in salvaging a project that holds so much promise for the state's economy and Tampa Bay's future.
The consequences of Scott's grandstanding are clear. More than $2.4 billion from Washington? Gone. Five thousand construction jobs? Gone. A modern transportation link between two of the largest cities in the fourth-largest state? Gone. Thousands of additional jobs serving the line; billions of dollars more in private-sector investment; and the chance for an ever bigger bang by extending the system from Orlando to Miami? Gone, gone, gone.
After barely a month in office and no serious review, Scott killed an effort that a bipartisan group of the state's political and business leaders pursued for decades. He consigned motorists and commercial carriers along the Interstate 4 corridor to bigger traffic jams. He put taxpayers on the hook for expensive highway projects as the only way to improve moving people and goods between Tampa Bay and the theme park capital of the world. And he sent a message to the global business community that Florida lacks the vision and courage to invest in its future.
Scott said his decision came down to three basic fears: cost overruns could reach $3 billion, state taxpayers would have to cover any shortfall, and Florida would have to repay the federal government if the rail line goes defunct. Those aren't original or well founded. They come from a study by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank that compared the Florida plan with rail systems in Taiwan, Korea and Britain. The Reason study also assumed that any cost above the $2.7 billion estimated for the Tampa-Orlando line would fall to Florida taxpayers. The state plan doesn't call for that. Private operators would build and run the system and absorb any cost overruns.
If Scott were an honest broker looking out for Floridians, he would not have killed the project before putting it out to bid. He would have waited for an updated study on ridership and costs. The contention Wednesday by his press office that Scott has inside information is not good enough.
Scott took aim at the federal deficit and the Obama administration, which he intends to fight on every front regardless of Florida's needs. He fails to mention that the high-speed rail money is already committed and that Florida's money will just go to New York or another state with more vision. The reaction to such a foolish decision was biting and across the board. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he was disappointed, but noted: "There is overwhelming demand for high-speed rail in other states." U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, blasted Scott for a "devastating lack of vision," and U.S. Rep. John Mica, the Winter Park Republican who chairs the House transportation panel, urged the governor to reconsider. State Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the state Senate's Transportation Committee, said Scott's move was premature: "We've cut off our noses to spite our face."
That's putting it mildly. Scott did real harm to the Tampa Bay area, which has worked on a regional basis for years to improve area transit and to build the start of an integrated light rail system. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said she was "terribly disappointed," calling the move a "bad decision for all Floridians" that sends "a terrible message" to the business community. The state's powerful business lobby, Associated Industries, which had supported the rail plan, should be ashamed for kissing up to Scott by rationalizing the governor's move. In downtown Tampa alone, Scott's decision undermines tens of millions of dollars in public investment in housing, parks and retail. And it dampens the ongoing effort in Pinellas and across the bay to bring a major new mass transit initiative to the table.
The governor who travels in his private jet should look out the window the next time he flies over traffic-clogged Tampa Bay and Interstate 4. And when he looks for someone who could have created thousands of jobs and didn't, he can look in the mirror. Why would businesses elsewhere explore public-private partnerships in a state saddled with a governor who pulls the plug on an ambitious initiative before serious negotiations even start? Scott has dealt the state a terrible setback, and the state's more creative leaders should look for a way to reverse it.