UPDATE: On July 1, Florida Secretary of Transportation Ananth Prasad announced that Gov. Scott had given his approval for the SunRail project to proceed to construction. The related story can be found here.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott is nearing a decision whether to approve or reject Central Florida's $1.2-billion SunRail project, the commuter rail line planned for the city of Orlando and the counties of Orange, Seminole and Volusia that aims to alleviate congestion along Interstate 4. The governor could announce his decision any day now.
The governor has been assessing the project's merits almost since he came into office in January, when he suspended a significant number of state contracts, including the contract held by Archer Western Contractors of Atlanta and RailWorks Track Systems of New York.
Of course, this seems a bit like déjà vu, a reminder of the high-speed rail debate that roiled the state earlier this year. While it took the governor little time to find sufficient reason to reject the stimulus dollars that would have paid for nearly all of the planned high-speed rail line, the decisionmaking for this latest go/no-go connundrum seems to be requiring considerably more review.
And while the governor had always said his decision on SunRail likely wouldn't come until June or July, it remains a curious situation.
As readers recall, Gov. Scott ostensibly rejected the high-speed rail "boondoggle," as he called it, because he said there was too much financial risk for the state. Despite repeated assurances from the feds that nearly all of the costs would be paid for by the federal government, with little to no additional state spending required, the governor stuck to his guns and insisted it was too risky to move forward. "This project would be far too costly to taxpayers, and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits," the governor stated in a press release announcing his rejection of HSR funding.
At the time, of course, many people saw political motivation in the governor's rejection of high-speed rail, citing Scott's numerous criticisms of President Obama and the federal stimulus.
Which brings us to SunRail - a project that would definitely require considerable state funding (i.e., "taxpayer money") and certainly involves some measure of risk due to uncertainty over future ridership. Though local governments have stepped up with funding commitments for the system, the state remains on the hook for financial assistance in the near term.
As with any rail project these days, SunRail certainly has its proponents and detractors. People aligned with the tea party, who caught the governor's ear when he was deliberating over high-speed rail, have been vocally opposed to SunRail and have been pushing him to reject this rail project as well.
The New York Times, which seems to find fault in all rail systems outside of the five boroughs, chimed in on SunRail in a June 27 article that criticized it as merely the "pet project" of Congressman John Mica (R-Winter Park), who happens to serve as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In the article, the Times called it "a 61-mile commuter rail project that the federal government ranks as one of the least cost-effective mass transit efforts in the nation."
Rep. Mica offered a quick rebuttal to the Times. He wrote: "There is no more cost-effective solution to provide near-term relief to the region's increasing highway congestion. The project will provide a transportation alternative and relocate freight rail to less populated parts of the state. The project will also create jobs and spur significant economic development.... This project is a good infrastructure project that will improve the region's transportation and the economy."
But those nattering nabobs of negativity won't stop. In its June 29 editorial opinion entitled "SunRail Tests Scott's Principles," the St. Petersburg Times -- which previously called Gov. Scott a "train wreck" when he rejected the high-speed rail line -- urged the governor to show some good sense this time and kill SunRail, saying it simply made no economic sense.
Concluded the Times: "Scott killed a high-speed rail project that would have been a model for the nation and declared he was acting on principle. Let's see if he sticks with his principles on a far less defensible commuter rail line or turns out to be another deal-cutting governor protecting his backside."
Time will soon tell. In the meantime, what do you think Gov. Scott's decision will be? I hope to see you share your thoughts below!