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Rail in legal battle

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood gave Florida until Friday to take the money. After that, it goes to another state’s coffers.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood gave Florida until Friday to take the money. After that, it goes to another state’s coffers.

Isaac Babcock

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Two state senators are suing Gov. Rick Scott after the governor rejected $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funding from the federal government.

In their suit, Sens. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, challenged Scott’s authority to reject the money and impose an injunction preventing Scott from rejecting the money while the case is pending.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have been scrambling to come up with a funding plan for the $2.7 billion system in the meantime after U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that Florida Gov. Rick Scott had requested additional info on the system. LaHood extended a deadline to Friday before he will consider sending the $2.4 billion in federal funding elsewhere.

“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.

Last week Scott had told house transportation committee chair U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, that he would not consider any alternative plans for a high-speed rail system.

Mica had as recently as Feb. 24 seemingly been prepared to accept Scott’s decision, acting conciliatory in the wake of news that day 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 had drafted 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,” Mica said. “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 Feb. 22, 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.