Fla. high-speed rail plan gets another reprieve

The Associated Press
Friday, February 25, 2011; 5:48 PM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Hours after the Obama administration gave Florida Gov. Rick Scott a week to reconsider his opposition to a revised proposal for high-speed trains between Tampa and Orlando, the Republican kept up his harsh criticism of the project.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood offered the reprieve after meeting with Scott in Washington. At stake is $2.4 billion the federal government would take back if Scott doesn't approve the project.

"He asked me for additional information about the state's role in this project, the responsibilities of the Florida Department of Transportation, as well as how the state would be protected from liability," LaHood said in a statement. "He has committed to make a final decision by the end of next week."

If Scott balks, the money would be reallocated to one or more other states seeking high-speed rail funding, including California, New York and Rhode Island.

As recently as Thursday night, LaHood told a meeting of U.S. mayors - including several from Florida - the project was dead and the money offered to Florida would go to other states, said Mort Downey, a top-level Clinton administration transportation official and an adviser to President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

That seemed to jibe with Scott's statement several hours after meeting with LaHood.

"I believe high speed rail is a federal boondoggle, as I said more than a week ago," Scott said. "I communicated to Secretary LaHood that as long as Florida remains on the hook for cost overruns, operating costs and pay-backs in the case of default, I will vigorously oppose this project."

LaHood gave Scott until next Friday to make a decision on the revised proposal worked out with Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando and Miami officials to absolve the state of financial or legal obligation by turning the project over to the local governments.

Both Scott and the president have political capital riding on the Florida project.

Obama has sought to make a national high-speed rail system a signature project of his administration, but Republican governors elected in November in Wisconsin and Ohio have already killed two major projects approved by their Democratic predecessors. Without Florida, the administration would be left with one high-speed rail project in California that achieves the kind of speeds associated with trains in Europe and Asia.

If the Florida project dies, "it looks like the whole process is cratering," Downey said.

Politics, not policy, is at the root of the negotiations, said Anthony Perl, chairman of the National Research Council's intercity rail panel and an expert on high-speed rail.

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