By Michael Grunwald, TIME Senior Correspondent
It’s one thing to look a gift horse in the mouth. It’s quite another thing to slaughter a gift horse and send its disemboweled corpse back to Washington.
Florida Governor Rick Scott just killed the Obama administration’s marquee high-speed rail project, giving up a whopping $2.4 billion in federal funds for a Tampa-Orlando bullet train. This was the nation’s most shovel-ready high-speed project, and the state wasn’t required to spend a dime to build it; running through the heart of the politically sensitive I-4 corridor, it had bipartisan support in South Florida, where it was seen as a precursor to a long-awaited Orlando-Miami line.
But Scott ran as a tea-party candidate, and he’s sticking to his tea-party convictions. He’s also delivering a brutal setback to one of Obama’s signature initiatives, halting high-speed rail’s momentum just days after the president proposed to spend an additional $53 billion over the next six years.
“Put simply, the proposed high-speed rail line is far too uncertain and offers far too little long-term benefit for me to consider moving forward,” Scott wrote to Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood. In prepared remarks, he added: “The answer is to reduce government spending, cut government’s leash on our state’s job creators and then hold government accountable for the investments it makes.”
Scott has pledged to create 700,000 jobs in Florida, and he sent LaHood a long list of alternative infrastructure projects to which he’d like to divert the high-speed money, including port deepenings in Jacksonville and Miami and highway widenings on I-95 and I-4. But that’s not how the high-speed rail program works. When newly elected Republican governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio scuttled their high-speed programs, their money was redistributed to states like Florida. Now it will be re-redistributed nationwide.
“This project could have supported thousands of good-paying jobs for Floridians and helped grow Florida businesses, all while alleviating congestion on Florida’s highways,” LaHood said in a statement. “Nevertheless, there is overwhelming demand for high-speed rail in other states that are enthusiastic to receive Florida’s and the economic benefits it can deliver, such as manufacturing and construction jobs, as well as private development along its corridors.”
Walker and Kasich had made it clear during their campaigns that they would kill high-speed rail, but Scott had been cagier. In recent weeks, he had only said he wanted to make sure Florida didn’t have to pay for the project—and with the extra money from Wisconsin and Ohio, it looked like his concerns had been met. LaHood also worked out a deal to make sure that private businesses competing to build and run the line would assume responsibility for cost overruns and operating expenses.
But Scott is no fan of Obama or his initiatives; Scott’s first foray into politics was leading a group devoted to attacking Obama’s health reforms. And Scott doesn’t seem particularly fond of mass transportation either. He has suspended funding for a desperately needed commuter rail line in Orlando, which was supposed to be a prerequisite for high-speed rail. Today, he also complained about state subsidies for another commuter rail line running between West Palm Beach and Miami
On the merits, the Tampa-Orlando line is actually a tougher call; I’ve referred to it as a “glorified Disney shuttle.” But a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors suggested that the train could have provided up to $2.9 billion in economic benefits in the Orlando area alone, creating as much as 27,500 jobs. And our passenger rail system is pathetically slow; if you want to start building sleek bullet trains like the ones whipping around Europe and Asia, you’ve got to start somewhere. The Tampa-Orlando route had the necessary permits and land—it went right down the I-4 median—as well as a built-in ridership between Disney World and the Orlando airport. It was telling that Scott massaged the ridership data in his remarks; he argued that it was silly to expect 3 million annual riders on the Tampa-Orlando line when only 3.2 million ride the Acela train in the Northeast Corridor, but he didn’t mention another 7.2 million riders in the Northeast Corridor who take somewhat slower but much cheaper trains.
So now what? This will mean more money for bullet trains in California, but they’re still years away from becoming a reality. It will mean more money for less sexy but nevertheless worthy projects to increase Amtrak speeds around Chicago and throughout the Midwest.
But if Obama wants to drive this train forward, he’s going to have to work with Republican House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, who represents Orlando, and yesterday called Scott’s decision a “huge setback for the state of Florida.” Mica has actually been highly critical of Obama’s approach to high-speed rail, saying the obvious place to pour more money is the popular and profitable Acela line. It’s still too slow, with average speeds of around 85 miles an hour, but it’s replaced the airlines as the dominant mode of travel in the Northeast. It will take billions of dollars to increase Acela’s speeds—but as it happens, Obama’s about to have some extra high-speed rail money to play with.