WASHINGTON — Florida on Wednesday spurned $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail funds, giving California a chance to scoop up more for itself.
Citing project costs and inefficiencies, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he was turning down the federal dollars designed to help build a rapid route connecting Tampa to Orlando. The move means the Obama administration must now reallocate the funds.
"Thank you, Florida," said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove. "California is moving forward with high-speed rail."
The Obama administration already has provided California with about $3.6 billion for high-speed rail construction. The money will help build the state's 123-mile initial segment, connecting Bakersfield with rural Madera County.
California's total includes $616 million diverted in December when Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio turned down their own federal grants. Then, as now, Obama administration officials voiced disappointment that states would reject high-speed rail funds but also vowed to find other takers.
"There is overwhelming demand for high-speed rail in other states that are enthusiastic to receive Florida's funding and the economic benefits it can deliver," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
Transportation Department officials did not elaborate Wednesday on how and when they may reallocate Florida's share.
"We're still looking at what it means," said Rachel Wall, spokeswoman for California's High-Speed Rail Authority.
Still, California seems a likely bet to secure at least some of the additional funding. One unhappy Florida lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor, went so far as to urge Scott to reconsider "in order to save these jobs and not send the investment dollars to California and other states."
When the Transportation Department reallocated rail funds in December, roughly one month after Ohio and Wisconsin rejected their individual shares, California received more than half of the extra money.
Wall said Wednesday that "it's very clear" that California is capable of putting additional federal funds to work. The state has been matching federal funds with its own, designed to build a system capable of handling trains traveling 220 miles per hour.
But in California, too, the ambitious project has its skeptics.
This week, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, authored an amendment to a big federal funding bill that would prohibit any money from being spent on California high-speed rail through the rest of this fiscal year. The amendment appeared to be a long shot, although it sent a signal.
More broadly, skeptics on and off Capitol Hill question the long-term costs and economic viability of high-speed rail.
"Capital cost overruns from the project could put Florida taxpayers on the hook for an additional $3 billion," said Scott, a newly elected conservative Republican.
Scott added that ridership projections he called "inflated" appear unreliable, leading to the likelihood that his state would be on the hook for subsidizing the high-speed train for years to come.
McClatchy Newspapers 2010