One of Rick Scott’s first acts as Florida’s governor was to reject Washington’s “gift” of $2.4 billion for a high-speed train running between Tampa and Orlando. Scott was panned by many for turning down the feds, but he stood firm because he said the plan could end up costing taxpayers here at least $1 billion more.
“As you know, my background is in business, not politics. But you don’t have to be an economics expert to understand that if you spend more money than you take in, your business will fail,” Scott said in a 2011 statement announcing his decision.
“Unfortunately, politicians haven’t always seemed to grasp that same principle.”
I was one of those who thought Scott’s rejection of the money was straight outta Looneyville. We were in a deep recession and Gov. “Let’s Get To Work” had just said no thanks to a project that would have created thousands of jobs.
But, um … well, it looks like the governor was correct.
Part of the money earmarked for Florida’s rail project wound up in California to help link the northern and southern parts of the state, but the project is way over budget and way behind schedule. POLITICO reported the price has swelled to about 35 times the annual federal subsidy for Amtrak, and Washington Republicans have shown no appetite for increasing funding.
In other words, California is stuck. There is no long-term funding source and project planners have been ridiculed on just about everything.
To be fair, the project Scott rejected was on a much smaller scale than what California is trying to do. The Tampa-to-Orlando run was supposed to be a model other states could copy as a way to get cars off the road and steer the nation toward mass transit. And just because California has messed it up is no proof Florida would have.
The fundamental question, though, was who in the world would take a bullet train from Tampa to Orlando? Tourists enjoying the Tampa Bay beaches might have seen it as a good way to hop over to Disney, but it’s doubtful it would have been more than a gimmick for state residents.
The drive isn’t that long anyway. From eastern Hillsborough County, you can reach Disney in about an hour. The argument went that having that rail system would have spurred more mass transit projects, a notion Scott summarily rejected in the name of fiscal prudence.
None of this means the state has a mandate to stick its head in our sandy beaches on the issue of mass transit. Estimates are that about 22 million people will live in the state by 2025 – less than 10 years from now. How are we going to get around?
Roads are already jammed and getting worse, and the Florida Department of Transportation’s solution is to turn every new thoroughfare it builds into a toll road. That’s a debate for another day.
But on the issue of whether Florida should have taken the high-speed rail money, the troubles in California would seem to show the governor’s logic in turning down the cash was legit.
Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.