Can anyone imagine a governor opposing President Dwight D. Eisenhower on his quest to create an interstate highway system in the United States many decades ago?
That’s how Sen. Bill Nelson is characterizing Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to refuse $2.4 billion in federal funding for the construction of a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando.
“That is what we are facing today,” says Nelson in a statement recorded on video and posted on his website.
Nelson discusses going around Scott and proceeding with a plan to continue with the construction of the line between Orlando and Tampa, a pronouncement that legal challenges may be ahead.
The senator said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has lawyers within his agency “now doing research” on creating another entity other than the state of Florida that could accept the federal funding and move on with building the rail line.
Scott announced Wednesday that he is refusing the federal funding because he feared Florida’s taxpayers would eventually be on the hook for future costs of the project, but politicians and business leaders blasted him for being short-sighted in denying a project that is “shovel-ready.”
Plans for the Tampa-Orlando line were drawn up years ago — though tabled under former Gov. Jeb Bush — and surveying work has already begun along the I-4 corridor. The Florida Department of Transportation started the project when President Barack Obama announced a first wave of funding last year.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio told media outlets Scott’s decision to pull the plug on the federal funding was the worst decision she has seen in her two decades plus of public service. She and other Tampa political and business leaders failed to convince voters in Hillsborough County to pass a penny tax that would have secured funding for a light rail system in Tampa to connect to the proposed high-speed rail station.
“I am terribly disappointed in Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to stop the high-speed rail project,” she said. “It is a bad decision for all Floridians.”
Scott’s decision came days after a roundtable of political and business leaders from across the state met in downtown Tampa to discuss ways to encourage Scott to accept the rail money. But Scott made his decision before measures to try to persuade him were put into motion, says Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Robert Rohrlack.
“It caught us by surprise,” Rohrlack said of Scott’s announcement.
Other political leaders besides Nelson also weighed in, blasting Scott’s decision, while tea party members praised him.
“Gov. Scott’s decision demonstrates a devastating lack of vision for Florida and a lack of understanding of our economic situation. He should immediately reconsider his decision in order to save these jobs and not send the investment dollars to California and other states,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor stated.
State Sen. Paula Dockery, who served on Scott’s transition team, said the governor’s decision will cost the state jobs, and that California will be pleased to get the funding Florida has refused.
“It appears that Secretary LaHood will direct these billions lost by Florida to California, where true high-speed rail has the next best opportunity to succeed,” she said.
Even the Republican head of the congressional transportation committee — Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park — said Scott made the wrong decision. “This is a huge setback for the state of Florida, our transportation, economic development, and important tourism industry,” he said.
The statement is a reversal for Mica: The congressman set off the first wave of criticism of the project after his party’s landslide victory last November.
In the end, those who say they were blindsided by Scott’s decision can look to a statement by the tea party after his announcement, and a study performed by the Reason Foundation that claimed to have the governor’s ear, to see where Scott stands.
One tea party statement reads: “Our Leaders and Members of the various groups have worked tirelessly to inform and educate our fellow citizens and state representatives here in Florida on the reckless path of placing higher burdens on our tax base for pie in the sky promises from High-Speed Rail.”