Passenger Rail Commission: High-speed rail in jeopardy without private funding
Republican critics of plans for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando wasted no time after the Nov. 2 elections questioning the project, and now Democrats are also voicing concern.
The construction of high-speed rail in the United States has been a signature issue for President Barack Obama’s administration, with the Tampa-Orlando line planned to be the first in the country, scheduled to be up and running by 2015.
But with the Nov. 2 Republican landslide in Congress and in Florida, the Tampa-Orlando line immediately came under fire from incoming transportation committee chair Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park.
With surveying work already underway along I-4, Mica went so far as to question whether Tampa was a viable option for the line, telling the Associated Press that consideration should be given to cutting back the project to serve only the Orlando area. Mica could not be reached for this story.
Newly elected Republican state officials also weighed in, including Gov.-elect Rick Scott, who said he was in favor of high-speed rail — if somebody other than Florida taxpayers paid for it.
On Monday, state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, a commissioner on the Florida Statewide Passenger Rail Commission, weighed in with similar sentiments, and threatened that construction of the Tampa-Orlando line is not a done deal.
The commission held a meeting at the Tampa Convention Center during which officials with the Florida Rail Enterprise, an arm of the Florida Department of Transportation, presented commissioners with a report on the progress and plans for the project.
As Department of Transportation rail officials gave their presentation, Ring brought up funding and pointed out that the project is short more than $300 million, with $2.35 billion in federal and state funding secured for the $2.7 billion rail line.
Both Scott’s incoming administration and Republican lawmakers in the state Senate have made it clear that shortcoming is not going to be paid by taxpayers, Ring told rail officials.
Instead, Ring said that private companies bidding on the project would almost certainly need to put up their own money for the high-speed line to move forward. And if they don’t? “We can kiss the high-speed rail project away,” Ring said.
Rail officials presented commissioners with a list of eight consortiums vying for contracts to build the Tampa-Orlando line, all of which are made up mostly of foreign companies from Japan, South Korea, Spain, Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom.
There is also a team of Chinese companies that have partnered with American giant General Electric looking to bid, according to Florida Rail Enterprise Chief Operating Officer Nazih Haddad.
All of the consortiums have shown great interest in the project, and several have shown a willingness to invest their own money, Haddad told the commission.
The rail enterprise has also hired several foreign consultants to help with planning and oversight of the consortiums poised to bid on the project, which also rankled Ring.
Saying he “lacked confidence” in the Department of Transportation’s expertise in overseeing the consultants, Ring proposed that the enterprise should bring on an engineer with hands-on experience in rail technology.
“If ever the nation’s eyes are upon us, this is it,” Ring told rail officials.
Rings tells The Florida Independent that although he would like to see Department of Transportation officials bring more expertise to the table, it would not “kill” the project for him, unlike the funding issue.
“I just think someone being paid by the taxpayers should be held accountable,” Ring says. “But it would not kill the project for me. If the companies don’t come up with the funding, that would kill it.”
Ring adds that he is in favor of high-speed rail in Florida, just not on the backs of taxpayers.
Last week, dozens of public officials addressed crowds at a two-day symposium in Orlando touting the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line, and urged the crowd to keep fighting for rail in the face of skepticism.
Rail commission chair Patrick Christianson announced at the Tampa meeting Monday that the board would be meeting with Mica in the coming weeks, and Florida Rail Enterprise Executive Director Kevin Thibault tells The Florida Independent his agency is also seeking a meeting with the congressman.
At the commission meeting Monday, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio urged commissioners to fight skepticism amid the defeat of a sales tax referendum in Hillsborough County that would have funded light rail to connect to the Tampa-Orlando high-speed line.
But the sales tax loss in Hillsborough still looms as a blow to rail efforts in the region, as many deemed it critical to high-speed rail success in the Tampa Bay area. It is clear for now that voters are not willing to fund light rail, Ring told a Tampa transportation official making a presentation.
“To me, the voters spoke,” Ring said. “They spoke loud and clear they don’t want it.”
After Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Bob Clifford showed maps of possible future rail lines running through the area, Ring asked how it to fund it.
“I don’t know that we have the answer to that at this point,” Clifford replied.