U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he was giving Florida Governor Rick Scott another week to reconsider his rejection of $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail project.
LaHood said he was providing the extra time after meeting with Scott in Washington yesterday, shortly after the governor defended his decision to nix the Tampa-to-Orlando project in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
Scott “has committed to making a final decision by the end of next week” on whether to accept the funding, LaHood said in a statement. “I feel we owe it to the people of Florida who have been working to bring high-speed rail to their state for the last 20 years to go the extra mile.”
Scott gave no indication, though, that he planned to rethink his refusal to accept the funds. In a statement posted on his Facebook page, the Florida governor said his position on the project -- which he called a “boondoggle” -- has not changed.
“While I appreciate his continued efforts to keep the project alive in Florida,’’ Scott said of LaHood, “it is important to note that I have yet to see any proposal that accomplishes my goal of eliminating risk to Florida’s taxpayers.’’
In his Bloomberg Television interview, Scott said the project would put Florida taxpayers on the hook to repay the federal government for a rail line that was likely to have cost overruns and operating losses. “I don’t want our taxpayers to fund that,” he said.
LaHood dismissed the assertion as “baloney” during an interview at the Bloomberg News Bureau in Washington. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
According to LaHood, Scott asked during the subsequent meeting “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.”
Scott, 58, elected last fall with Tea Party support, is the third Republican governor to reject high-speed rail funding from the Obama administration. In postings on Twitter last week, he referred to the project as “ObamaRail” and “ObamaTrain,” echoing the “Obamacare” nickname opponents have given to the health-care overhaul enacted last year.
Foes of the projects said another week wouldn’t change their minds about it.
“No means no,” Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican, said in a statement reacting to LaHood’s extension. “Why is Washington working so hard to spend money it doesn’t have?”
Still, some Florida Republicans and Democrats have criticized Scott for his rejection of the rail funding, and proponents of the project said they were pleased that he might reconsider.
“I appreciate Secretary LaHood’s dedication to Floridians, and I appreciate Governor Scott’s willingness to take another look,” U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat, said in a statement. “I am hopeful that Governor Scott will carefully review the job and economic opportunities tied to the once-in-a generation infrastructure investment in Florida.”
In the interview yesterday, Scott said that an existing rail line between Miami and West Palm Beach costs $65 million a year to operate and that fares cover only $10 million. Construction cost overruns on the proposed high-speed Tampa- Orlando line might have reached $3 billion, he said.
LaHood said in his interview that Floridians wouldn’t have had to shoulder the cost. “I don’t know of another person in Florida that agrees with that,” said the former Republican congressman from Illinois. “A lot of smart people have put these plans together. There would have been no financial liability or responsibility to the taxpayers of Florida.”
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich have also turned down funding from the Obama administration for high-speed rail projects, a top priority of the president’s. They rejected funds from $8 billion in high- speed rail grants in the 2009 economic stimulus plan.
Scott’s announcement Feb. 16 that he was refusing the money canceled the first new project in the $53 billion high-speed rail plan President Barack Obama presented in his 2012 budget two days earlier.
Scott, in Washington for a weekend meeting of the National Governors Association, criticized Obama’s performance in yesterday’s interview, saying he hasn’t shifted toward the center since the November elections cost Democrats control of the House and shrank their Senate majority.
“What’s changed?” Scott said. “We still have ridiculously high taxes. We’re walking into a $1.6 trillion deficit.”
“He should be cutting corporate taxes,” the governor said. “He needs to reduce -- dramatically reduce -- spending.”
Scott also took Republican governors’ side in a widening dispute with public employees over curbing their unionization rights and benefits during a budget crunch.
He said that Florida would be better off if public employees couldn’t form unions and that it’s unfair to taxpayers that state workers don’t contribute to their pensions.
While Florida’s constitution grants state workers the right to unionize and bargain for workplace rights, Scott said, “It’d be great to be able to change it.”
“Our state workers don’t pay for anything into their pension plan. And we can’t afford that -- it’s not fair to taxpayers,” he said. “If you didn’t have collective bargaining, would it be better for the state? Absolutely.”
He said Walker and Kasich, who have sought to limit state workers’ union-organizing rights in their states, are “absolutely doing the right thing.”
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