(Pic by SoulRider.222)
(Pic by SoulRider.222)

RickRailed: Why did Scott approve SunRail?

By | 07.02.11 | 9:54 am

Gov. Rick Scott was going to take heat from someone, no matter what he decided to do about SunRail. Business groups and Central Florida politicians wanted the project to move ahead, but Scott also risked rankling his tea party base, which is now doing some soul-searching. Like many of Scott’s sometimes quixotic decisions, it’s hard to chalk this one entirely up to politics. As the hometown editorial board put it, this project “had too much going for it.”

One of the foremost critics of Scott’s decision to give it the go-ahead was state Sen. Paula Dockery, one of Scott’s earliest backers. A Lakeland Republican and a strong supporter of the high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, she was perhaps the most vocal among those arguing that SunRail was a boondoggle. In a scathing statement run by the St. Petersburg Times, she said he was betraying the trust of his conservative base “by moving forward with the least cost-efficient commuter rail project in the nation.”

Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said support for the project was overwhelming at a series of public meetings he attended before Friday’s announcement. Many of the other reasons he cited for the approval will sound familiar to high-speed rail supporters:

  • Supporters include members of Congress and the Florida Legislature, as well as local politicians and Scott’s predecessor as governor.
  • It will support local businesses and create jobs.
  • Other entities (in this case, local governments) will help pick up the tab for any cost overruns.
  • The federal government has already set aside money for the project.

By those standards, as this breakdown posted by The Miami Herald illustrates, the high-speed line may have been a better deal. Scott’s main argument against the high-speed line — the potential burden on taxpayers — could also be more apt for SunRail than for the high-speed line, for which private companies may have been coaxed to take on some, if not all, of the risk associated with cost overruns.

“Governor Scott used all the right arguments to green light the wrong rail project. His support had nothing to do with good policy, good logic, or the good of Floridians. But it had everything to do with hypocrisy and allegiance to his Republican brethren,” said a statement from Arthenia Joyner, the No. 2 Democrat in the state Senate, who, along with a Republican colleague, tried to challenge Scott’s scuttling of the high-speed line in federal court.

Still, as the governor told a gathering of press folks in St. Petersburg on Friday, SunRail is a different kind of project.

For one thing, the train was leaving the station before he took office. The Legislature approved it with overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in both houses, and the measure was signed by Gov. Charlie Crist. Scott froze the contracts earlier this year, saying he needed time to vet the details. At the time, lawmakers, including Senate Budget Chair J.D. Alexander, reiterated their support for the project and said he ought to release the money. For his part, Scott kept the money in his budget proposal.

Scott spokesman Lane Wright said the governor had been advised that if he did kill the project, his decision might not have held up in court, the way his rejection of high-speed rail money did. Scott himself cited that legal advice, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

The project is also tied to some of his top priorities. CSX will reap $432 million by selling its tracks to the state, but a spokesman told the Jacksonville Business Journal that the freight-moving company will be plowing the proceeds back into Florida infrastructure projects, including “up to $40 million” to connect its lines with the Port of Jacksonville, an upgrade Scott has been eyeing since his early transition meetings.

Other companies, including Central Florida heavyweights like Disney, Tupperware and Florida Hospital, pledged land and money for stations, and marketing support.

Prasad described SunRail as a “judgement day kind of project” — perhaps Florida’s last best hope for moving its predominant pattern of development away from car-dependent suburban sprawl, a challenge that is as evident in Central Florida as anywhere else. The state needs more transportation options, and this could be the best shot we have.

As Prasad put it on Friday: “We have to make this train SunRail successful for any hope of building choices in transportation.”

For better or for worse, this effort now has his name attached. Some critics of the project have adopted the term “RickRail.”

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