The proposed $2.7-billion (if you believe estimates) high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando is finally dead. For now, at least. Gov. Rick Scott (R) drove the first nail into the project on Feb. 16, when he announced he was rejecting federal funds. Then the Florida Supreme Court drove the final nail in the coffin last week when it rejected a lawsuit by state senators that aimed to force the governor to accept those federal dollars, whether he liked it or not.
So high-speed rail in Florida is dead, right? Well, for now it is, sure. Again, that is. It's been killed before, after all. If history is any guide, another plan will likely see the light of day sometime in the future. For instance, back when ENR Southeast used to be Southeast Construction, our very first issue, in December 2000, featured a story about Florida's push for a statewide high-speed rail system.
Back then, it was being pushed by C.C. "Doc" Dockery, a wealthy Lakeland businessman who bankrolled a constitutional amendment effort mandating high-speed rail, which voters passed. It was a flawed measure, though, as it made no mention of a way to actually pay for a statewide system. It was the ballot equivalent of asking a kid if they'd like a pony for Christmas. Sure, we'd love a high-speed rail system that zooms all over the state!, the voters responded. (The voters are citizens of the state of Florida, after all, which was built, pretty much, on the concept of "something for nothing.")
Then grinchy Gov. Jeb Bush (R) stepped in, first vetoing funds for the project, and then leading a successful effort to repeal the previously passed constitutional amendment. (A history of Florida high-speed rail from Floridabullettrain.com describes the then-governor as "using inflammatory and misleading anti-rail rhetoric predicting financial ruin for Florida.")
Gov. Bush put forth another ballot measure that this time asked voters, "How are we going to pay for this thing?" "We thought we were getting something for nothing!" the voters cried. And with that, just as swiftly as they'd approved it, they rejected it, and high-speed rail in Florida was dead. For awhile, at least.
Of course, anyone who's somewhat familiar with Florida knows that this Tampa-to-Orlando line didn't pop to the front of President Obama's high-speed rail initiative by accident. It was the result of decades of planning and preparation, as well as a lot of purchasing of right-of-way along Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando.
Even so, the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail line was never a cinch. On the one hand, do you really need a high-speed rail line between two cities just 90 miles apart? Then again, if you've ever been stuck in traffic on I-4 -- and, really, what Floridian, or tourist for that matter, hasn't? -- then you've probably seen the value of a mode of transportation that doesn't have to deal with congestion.
At the same time, Tampa-to-Orlando was going to be just the first step in a system that would ultimately ride down to Miami, which more people saw as a legitimate and worthwhile route for high-speed rail.
On the other hand, who was going to build a line to Miami? Would the state have to pony up some dough then? And what if the federal government's tap eventually ran dry, as it appears to be doing for other programs, and the Miami route was never built? Would the state be stuck with some dud of a line between two cities that were relatively easy drives apart from each other?
The fact that the federal government was going to pay for the vast majority of it, and that the private sector sounded like it was willing to pay the rest, and, most likely, cover all future expenses for operation and maintenance, well, that sounded very much like "something for nothing."
Basically, in the end, there were good arguments for and against a Tampa-to-Orlando line. Reasonable people could disagree reasonably on its merits. And, despite some commentary to the contrary, it wasn't just "liberals" who were lining up in favor of high-speed rail. Some conservatives, including most of Florida's legislators, were in favor of the project as well. (That includes Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R), who was for high-speed rail before he was definitely, definitely against it. You can read Politifact's "Full-Flop" ruling on Haridopolos and the rail project here.)
Which brings us to the sad ending of this latest chapter in the history of Florida and high-speed rail. And by "sad" I don't mean the result, but the manner in which it ended.
Gov. Rick Scott's torpedoing of this project before bids could come in made this decision a strictly political one. Even the report that Gov. Scott cited when he warned of the financial risks to the state listed another option -- ensure that any contracts with the private-sector contain iron-clad guarantees that the state of Florida will not subsidize the project or its operations, ever.
After the governor rejected it the first time, a group of local, state and federal officials gathered together and put that into writing for him. Shoot, even ex-Gov. Bush wondered why Gov. Scott didn't at least let the bids come in for review.
The proposals would've either met the state's requirements of not requiring any future funds from the state, ever, for anything, or they wouldn't have. And if they hadn't, and had instead contained some level of financial risk for the state of Florida, no one could have fairly criticized Gov. Scott for killing the project right then and there. Instead, we ended up with more partisanship, and more discord. Which is not ever a good result.
But like I said, high-speed rail in Florida could come around again. We'll just have to wait and see.