Editorial: Scott should come clean about rail project

Gov. Rick Scott, who killed a high-speed train system for Tampa Bay, has given support for another train: All Aboard Florida, a rail venture on Florida’s east coast.
Gov. Rick Scott, who killed a high-speed train system for Tampa Bay, has given support for another train: All Aboard Florida, a rail venture on Florida’s east coast.
Published July 23, 2014

When a private company contemplates a major transportation investment stretching across 256 miles of Florida railway and dozens of communities, Floridians deserve to know what their governor knows. But vigorous efforts by Gov. Rick Scott and his administration to deflect questions and mislead the public about the state's investment in the success of All Aboard Florida fuels more suspicion about the proposed rail line between Miami and Orlando and distrust of state government. The governor already has a hypocritical record on rail, and he owes Floridians some straight answers.

It's now clear that All Aboard Florida was seeking special treatment from the governor's office as soon as Scott won the 2010 election. After Scott was inaugurated, Adam Hollingsworth, who had helped Scott pick his transportation secretary as part of the incoming governor's transition team, went to work for Parallel Infrastructure. The Florida East Coast Industries company was pushing the All Aboard Florida plan. Until Hollingsworth became Scott's chief of staff in 2012, he played a key role in quietly building support in the governor's office and the transportation department for the project to run these passenger trains. Thanks to the 2014-15 state budget Scott signed, the rail plan is set to benefit from $230 million in state investments, including money set aside for rail "quiet zones" along its route and a new multimodal terminal at Orlando International Airport.

Scott distinguishes between this plan and the high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando that he killed with Hollingsworth's support by rejecting $2.4 billion in federal money. The governor and the Department of Transportation claim the projects were not related and that Hollingsworth, since returning as chief of staff, has not been involved with All Aboard Florida discussions. The administration argues All Aboard Florida is a privately financed project, ignoring that it wants $1.5 billion in federal loans and future state grants. It is so desperate to maintain that fiction that the transportation department recently warned All Aboard Florida not to apply for the state grants because it would be rejected. Yet the rail service to Orlando is being delayed for at least a year. Among the apparent reasons: It isn't clear the $213 million state-financed multimodal terminal would be finished in time.

Meanwhile, state transportation officials have enabled All Aboard Florida to hide behind exemptions in the public records law to avoid releasing some documents, including a ridership survey that was part of its loan application process. Leaked documents obtained by the Scripps/Tribune Tallahassee bureau show much of the financial plan will rely on land development along the tracks, not ridership per se, just reinforcing that there is more the public deserves to know. Now Scott is asking the company to slow down to hear from concerned citizens, particularly those between Palm Beach County and Orlando, where no stops are scheduled. This is after he signed a budget that would pay for "quiet zones" in those neighborhoods and after his transportation agency had signed off on the project.

Scott is all over the map on rail. He rejected the federal money for high-speed rail because he disdains the Obama administration. He signed off on the expensive SunRail system in the Orlando area under heavy pressure from Central Florida legislators. His transportation department agreed to invest in some modest substructure to accommodate rail on a new Howard Frankland Bridge across Tampa Bay after the business community lobbied hard for it. Now he deceives voters by claiming no public money is going toward All Aboard Florida while millions in state dollars will be spent to make it work, his chief of staff has lobbied for it for years and his transportation department refuses to release documents that should be public.

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Better mass transit, including rail, is critical to the future of Florida and Tampa Bay. The least Scott could do is be open about All Aboard Florida's issues and stop misleading voters about its public cost.