Seven years after slamming the brakes on a federally backed bullet train, Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday that his administration is seeking proposals for a high-speed rail connection from Orlando to Tampa.
Scott — whose term expires in January and who is running in a heated contest against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — turned down $2.4 billion in federal funds for a Tampa-to-Orlando bullet train shortly after taking office in 2011, citing cost overruns on rail projects in other states.
But, in a news release Friday, Scott said the new project would be privately funded. The request for proposals came after the Florida Department of Transportation and the Central Florida Expressway Authority “received an unsolicited proposal to lease property owned by the state and CFX (the expressway authority) to build a high-speed train along Interstate 4,” the release said.
“Instead of placing taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, our goal is for the private sector to invest in this project. Through private investment, we ensure that this major project has zero financial risk to Florida taxpayers,” Scott said.
The I-4 corridor, which is renowned for some of the state’s worst traffic, is also home turf to a voting bloc considered crucial for Florida statewide candidates like Scott.
Friday’s announcement came less than two hours after Nelson tweeted that he was sitting in traffic on I-4, where “traffic is bad.”
“Again, I am officially calling on Gov. Scott to let us build high-speed rail. We would be riding at 180 mph between Orlando and Tampa right now had he not turned away $2.4 billion in 2011,” the rest of Nelson’s tweet read.
Following the announcement, Nelson quickly rebuked Scott, accusing his opponent of “falsely telling Florida taxpayers that they would have been on the hook for millions” when Scott rejected the federal funds in 2011.
“That wasn’t true then, and it’s still not true now. The federal government would have paid 90 percent of the cost to complete this project, while private companies would have paid the rest. And the governor’s own FDOT had a study that showed it would have made money in its very first year,” Nelson said in a statement issued by his Senate office.
Scott’s campaign swiftly punched back, mocking Nelson for backing high-speed rail “because he doesn’t like sitting in traffic” and ignoring the financial risks behind “a massive government project.”
“Governor Scott fought to protect taxpayer dollars and worked to find a creative solution that would allow for private investment in the high-speed rail project. Bill Nelson is for growing government. Governor Scott is for growing jobs,” Scott campaign spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in a statement.
High-speed rail has been a divisive issue in Florida for years. In 2000, voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring the development of a high-speed rail system that would link major urban areas. But voters removed the requirement from the Constitution in 2004 after a campaign backed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who argued the state could not afford it.
Scott later surprised lawmakers in Florida and in Washington, D.C., when he rebuffed President Barack Obama’s effort to build a nationwide network of trains. In the news release issued Friday, Scott’s office noted that “private intercity passenger rail service has been constructed and is currently being operated in Florida at no cost to taxpayers.”
While the news release was not specific, it appeared to be alluding to the Brightline passenger-rail service, which runs from West Palm Beach to Miami and is ultimately planned to extend to Orlando. The service has been highly controversial, drawing legal and political opposition from communities between West Palm Beach and Orlando. Among other things, opponents have raised safety concerns about the system.
The project announced Friday “will provide an opportunity for the private sector to expand privately funded passenger rail service in the state at a zero risk to Florida taxpayers,” according to the governor’s office.
Interested parties will have 120 days to submit proposals.
But Florida Democrats criticized Scott’s high-speed rail plans as election-year pandering.
“It’s no surprise that — in an election year — Rick Scott is saying and doing anything to get a promotion, while Floridians are left in the dust,” Florida Democratic Party spokesman Nate Evans said in a statement.