by Keith Laing
The News Service of Florida
Despite’s Florida’s popularity with federal transportation officials as a hub for rail projects, the unpopularity of trains with many voters who helped elect Gov.-elect Rick Scott could bring projects to a screeching halt once Scott gets to work.
As a candidate, Scott said he was not against all rail projects; he was just opposed to those the state would have to pay for. But many of his most ardent supporters are adamantly opposed to new rail of any kind.
Activists from the Tea Party, which fueled Scott’s rise in the Republican gubernatorial primary and his narrow win over Democrat Alex Sink, drew a line in the sand over rail as they met with legislative leaders during Tuesday’s veto override special session. And they’re saying the same thing to Scott.
“You are a Republican outsider that prevailed with an agenda that promoted both a reduction in spending and taxation,” the Florida Liberty Alliance wrote to Scott in a letter dated Nov. 11. “We trust you will fight to reduce government spending as you are sworn in this January. We can think of no better symbol of wasteful and unnecessary spending than passenger rail in all its forms.”
The highest profile fight overall since advocates squeezed through the Legislature Orlando’s proposed SunRail commuter train is likely to be finding another $300 million to build a long-sought bullet train along the I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa. Backers point to the fact that the federal government has offered up to $2 billion for the project, more than any state has been given for rail other than California.
But Karen Jaroch of the Tampa 9-12 project, said she would have liked to see high speed rail “scrapped.” Jaroch also said there could be other regional transportation fights that lawmakers will have to deal with in the coming year. In particular is a revived push for a light rail in Hillsborough County that supporters envision connecting to the high speed train.
That train was soundly defeated in November, when Hillsborough County voters overwhelming rejected a proposed countywide transportation tax that would have funded the proposed light rail and expanded bus service in Tampa.
The measure, which was projected to raise $180 million for transportation initiatives in the area, was strongly backed by business groups and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. But it was soundly defeated, with 58 percent of the county electorate voting no.
Supporters are considering bringing the plan back for another vote in 2012 under the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, which encompasses not only Hillsborough, but Pinellas and Pasco counties.
However, at least one grassroots conservative group, Ax the Tax, has pledged to put up $250,000 to fight it, saying it’s supported by “tax-and-spend bureaucrats.”
“Rail is a 200-year-old technology with a new millennium price tag that only serves one percent of the traveling public,” Ax the Tax Chair Doug Guetzloe said in a statement. “The only mobility that occurs is billions of our dollars moving from the public treasury into the pockets of the vested special interests.”
Jaroch agreed, saying her organization was “very up in arms” about the tri-county light rail proposal and planned to ask lawmakers they supported to put the brakes on it.
“We’re going to lobby legislators in our area not to grant them taxing authority,” Jaroch said. “That seems to be their next move, so we’re gearing up the troops.”
Jaroch said that Scott had not yet responded to the Liberty Alliance’s letter, but she hoped he would endorse their view of rail.
“We’re opposed to most forms of rail except the privately funded ones,” Jaroch told the News Service. “Across the nation, there’s not one that brings in more than 30 percent (of its costs).”
Supporters of the Tampa-Orlando bullet train have expressed hope that they might be able to establish public-private partnerships if the federal government’s rail spigot is closed with Republicans coming to power in the U.S. House.
With strident opposition from the Tea Party that fueled their victories, as well the election of Scott and other Florida Republicans, that could be tougher now. However, even the most ardent opponents of previous rail projects, like state Sen. Paula Dockery, who led the opposition to SunRail in the Legislature, have not gone as far in their opposition as the Tea Party.
“Am I anti-rail? No? Am I anti-Orlando? No,” Dockery told Jaroch and other Tea Party activists during a speech to them at the Capitol Tuesday, though she made sure to note her stance on SunRail. “What I am against is deals being cut behind closed doors between a government agency and some legislators, or the governor’s office, that do not look out for the best interests of the taxpayers of the state of Florida.”
What Dockery was saying this week echoed what candidate Scott said about rail when it became a campaign issue this fall.
“Every project we do, we have to get return for taxpayers,” the governor-elect said in the debate in Tampa against Democratic candidate Alex Sink. “So the way I look at it, on the high-speed rail, if the federal government is going to fund all of it, and there’s no - there’s nothing … (that’s) going to cost the state any money, let’s look at it.”
Tuesday, Scott transition spokesman Trey Stapleton reiterated that position.
“Gov.-elect Scott supports transportation infrastructure and modernizing our transportation system,” Stapleton told the News Service. “However, he is opposed to investing in projects that have little or no return on investment to the taxpayers of Florida. After looking at a final feasibility study on high speed rail projects and determining what the state would be responsible for, he will assess the state’s funds and determine if there is adequate return on investment for the taxpayer’s money.”
Stapleton did not indicate whether Scott was opposed to other municipalities paying for rail if they choose to, but Jaroch said her organization would like him to be.
“There’s a reason businesses are not doing this,” she said. “Rail is not an efficient way to get from A to B.”