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Fighting for high-speed rail

High speed rail may be in trouble if U.S. Rep. John Mica fails to ready a deal to keep Gov. Rick Scott from eliminating it.

High speed rail may be in trouble if U.S. Rep. John Mica fails to ready a deal to keep Gov. Rick Scott from eliminating it.

Isaac Babcock

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High speed rail may have gotten a reprieve on its death bed after U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that Florida Gov. Rick Scott had requested additional info on the system.

Earlier Scott had told house transportation committee chair U.S. Rep. John Mica that he would not consider any plans for a high speed rail system.

"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.

Mica had as recently as Thursday seemingly been prepared to accept Scott's decision, acting conciliatory in the wake of news Feb. 24 that Scott wouldn't accept any rail deals, regardless of financing or economic outlook.

"I have done all that I can to salvage the project to this point and present what I consider to be a viable alternative plan that places the risk with the private sector and protects the taxpayers," Mica said in a released statement.

But Mica vowed to continue working toward some sort of rail deal. He just hopes he can prove it will be financially viable.

The Winter Park congressman was exuding confidence after drafting a plan that would build a 21-mile corridor between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World, the first section of a proposed line originally designed to go from Orlando to Tampa.

“The ridership numbers for this 21-mile corridor would be some of the best in the United States and the world,” Mica said after announcing his plan.

The adjusted plan would call for private financiers to help shore up construction and operating costs to keep the state from footing portions of the bill not covered by the federal government. It would also call for Orange and Osceola counties to enter into an interlocal funding agreement with Orlando.

Mica had been fast at work after an announcement by Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Feb. 16. That morning Scott announced that he was rejecting federal funding for a high-speed rail system in Central Florida, and Mica was already on the phone doing damage control.

And he had a lot to say about what Florida would lose if Scott’s decision to de-fund the high-speed rail system sticks.

“That money would translate to about 100,000 jobs that we won’t see in Central Florida, which is running 17 to over 20 percent unemployment in the construction industry,” said Mica, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “If you drive down Interstate 4, there’s some work going on right now, preliminary [high speed rail system] work, and those people you see out there may be in unemployment lines now.”

Scott said in a press conference following his decision that he made his decision to save taxpayers money.

“I’m very concerned about our taxpayers,” Scott said. “The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers, and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits.”

That concern, he said, led him to stop the development of the rail system, which would have linked Orlando to Tampa, with a future route to Miami. But Mica said that Scott hadn’t even entertained bids from private contractors to see if they could save the system money.

“It’s unfortunate that they do not have an opportunity to even offer what they could contribute to a project like this,” Mica said. “I could see the governor turning this down after we’ve gotten proposals, but he hasn’t even gotten the first proposal. It just defies all logic.”

Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley agreed.

“I think the governor was premature on this,” he said.

That’s a sentiment echoed by Maitland. On Tuesday, Maitland City Council passed a resolution in support of high-speed rail. Three members of Council were actually in Mica’s Washington, D.C., office hours after the governor’s announcement not to take the federal funds. The Maitland officials committed to help the congressman build support for the project.

“We’re going to band together with other communities along the rail line — high-speed rail and SunRail — and offer support for the project and encourage the governor to work with the delegation to come up with a solution for his concerns,” Councilman Phil Bonus said.

Scott said that the rail money could be going toward existing infrastructure.

“Rather than investing in a high-risk rail project, we should be focusing on improving our ports, rail and highway infrastructure to be in a position to attract the increased shipping that will result when the Panama Canal is expanded when the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama are ratified and with the expansion of the economies of Central and South America,” Scott said, saying that in the long term an estimated 143,000 jobs could be created in Florida due to the shipping expansion.

Mica said he hoped to get Scott to see reason in pursuing private-sector options to fund and build the rail system, indicating that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood echoed his sentiments.

“We’re going to look at every option,” Mica said. “We’re going to reach out to the governor. Maybe he had a bad day this morning. I know I did. We’re going to look at everything. Sometimes when things are the toughest, that’s when you have to roll up your sleeves and move forward.”