Legislators, Associated Industries weigh in on Florida high-speed rail debate

Posted on: January 12th, 2011 by Luke Johnson No Comments

As Senate President Mike Haridopolos has withdrawn his support of a high-speed rail line connecting Orlando and Tampa, at least one business group announced plans Wednesday to rally support for the project.

A statement issued today by Associated Industries of Florida points out that the group “has, for years, been a strong advocate of bringing high speed rail to our state”:

That is why AIF is announcing the formation of a coalition we will spearhead to ensure this valuable project remains on track. We are in the process of assembling the coalition, which will include the private-sector companies that want the jobs, the work and the prestige that will come from being a part of Florida high speed rail. The Orlando to Tampa project will not only bring 5,000 construction jobs to Florida at a time when we desperately need them, but will also make an international impression as the home of the first high speed rail of its kind in this country.

That last bit about the project being the first of its kind in the country has been a major selling point for the project’s supporters.

State Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who’s also a member of the state’s rail commission, said during a committee meeting Tuesday that lots of international companies want the project, so they can show their technology off to other potential customers. As a result, they see it as a “loss leader” — they’re less concerned with making money than with showing the rest of the country what they can do.

That gives the state leverage, he told fellow members of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee. Under the state Department of Transportation’s current company that wins the contract to build and operate the rail line will assume all of the risk, so if the project doesn’t draw as many riders as expected, the company, not Florida taxpayers, will shoulder the losses.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, whose district lies along the proposed route and will likely get its own stop, echoed that point in an effort to rally support among fellow committee members for the project, which has drawn skepticism from Gov. Rick Scott, who is awaiting a feasibility study set to come out next month.

The federal government has provided nearly $2.4 billion in grants for the high-speed rail line, but the state has to pay for a share of the project worth approximately $280 million. Some of the state’s share could come from the private bidder, depending on what the state is able to extract during negotiations.

“What fiscal conservative doesn’t want private money?” she asked.

To that point, Associated Industries’ statement concludes:

AIF, our members and coalition partners want to see the bidding process for the project continue. Let’s give the private sector a chance to show us the level of risk and investment it is willing commit in order to launch high speed rail in Florida. Decisions to abandon the project can always be made further down the road if the conditions are not ideal. Right now, we have an opportunity to leverage private investment to secure billions in federal dollars for a project that will have an incredibly positive impact on our state. Let’s not derail high speed rail.

If the state doesn’t come up with $280 million, the federal funding will go to other states, most likely California, Kevin Thibault of the Florida Department of Transportation told the committee Tuesday.

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