by Brandon Larrabee
The News Service of Florida
The Central Florida commuter line called SunRail will go forward, state officials announced Friday, ending months of deliberation by Gov. Rick Scott that tested the dividing line between his small-government brand of conservatism and the GOP’s pro-business orientation.
If it was, as some critics contended, an attempt to shore up his shaky political standing, it backfired. The governor quickly came under fire from all sides for allowing the project to go forward.
Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad held a Friday morning press conference to announce Scott’s decision. Prasad went to pains to lay out the assurances from local governments and private officials that persuaded the state to go along with the 61-mile system, which is expected to cost almost $1.3 billion to build and operate from 2014 to 2030.
Prasad said Scott didn’t make the announcement because of a scheduling conflict, though the governor later explained his thinking to newspaper editors.
The decision highlighted the tensions Scott faces as he attempts to please both the business community, which supported the project and often strongly backs Republicans, and the activist tea party movement, which largely opposed the plan, that helped power Scott through the GOP primary and general elections.
In remarks to a newspaper editors’ convention in Tampa, Scott made it clear he wasn’t a big fan of the project and wasn’t totally convinced it would be successful. But the governor said he hoped the project would work, and added there were differences between SunRail and a high-speed rail project he killed.
There was tremendous local buy-in on SunRail, said Scott, and the governor’s legal advisers told him he probably didn’t have legal standing to kill it because lawmakers had already appropriated the money and then-Gov. Charlie Crist had signed off on it in 2009.
“I don’t know that I would have made the decision to go forward with this if I’d been around three or four years ago,” said Scott. “But the local community is either putting the money up themselves or it is coming out of their transportation funds.”
Scott said he asked his legal advisers whether he might be sued if he killed the project, and what would happen if he was.
“They said there was significant risk I would lose,” said Scott.
Whatever the reason, business groups praised the move as a visionary step that would provide a shot in the arm to the Central Florida economy.
“Long-term, SunRail will bring life to new businesses along its corridor,” said Jose Gonzalez, vice president of Associated Industries of Florida
“It will also have a tremendous impact on future investment in freight infrastructure, which Florida needs to take full advantage of improvements being made to our deep water ports in preparation for the expansion of the Panama Canal,” he said.
But Doug Guetzloe, a conservative activist who has long fought SunRail, bashed Scott for “a fatal political error.” He noted that very conservative voters are responsible for what remains of Scott’s approval rating, which hovers around 30 percent in several polls
“I think he just lost half of that, and I think he will now become the most unpopular sitting governor in the history of the state of Florida,” said Guetzloe.
Sen. Paula Dockery, a moderate Republican from Lakeland who was sympathetic to Scott in the primary, also was sharply critical of the move. Dockery has helped lead the charge against SunRail, saying the ridership projections don’t justify the state’s investment in the project.
“This morning, Governor Scott had his Secretary of Transportation announce that he will betray the trust of the conservative electorate who put him in office by moving forward with the least cost-efficient commuter rail project in the nation,” Dockery said in a blistering statement issued by her office.
“This decision has completed the governor’s transformation from businessman to political insider,” she said.
Scott also drew charges of hypocrisy from supporters of a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando, a project backed largely with federal money that he canceled earlier this year.
“Governor Scott used all the right arguments to green-light the wrong rail project,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa).
Joyner suggested the decision was driven in part by the support of U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), whose close ties to Jacksonville-based CSX, which is selling rail lines to the state for the SunRail project, has drawn media scrutiny in the days leading up to the decision.
Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arceneaux also blamed politics for the difference in the two decisions.
“By approving the SunRail project today, Rick Scott made it clear that he killed high-speed rail and the 71,000 job-years the project would have created as a partisan ploy to attack the President,” said Arceneaux.
Such widespread criticism indicated that the political fallout from the SunRail decision might not be over. Nor is the fight over the project itself, said Guetzloe, who noted his group is pushing a petition that would require any local expenditure for the project of more than $25 million to be approved by voters.
Opponents of the project also have found at least one property owner willing to file suit and attempt to block construction.
At any rate, said Prasad, the stakes could not be higher.
“If we cannot make SunRail successful,” he said, “probably there will be no more trains in the state of Florida.”