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Lawmakers Want to Route Rail Around Scott

February 17, 2011 - 6:00pm

Still stinging from Gov. Rick Scotts rejection of $2.4 billion from Washington for a Tampa-to-Orlando bullet train, lawmakers asked Thursday for more time to figure out how they could accept the money without him.

Among the possibilities floated by the lawmakers was that the rail commission they created last year could accept the money, while cities were buzzing Thursday with questions about whether they could accept the cash and bypass the state.

Led by ardent rail supporter Sen. Paula Dockery, a bipartisan group of 26 Florida senators sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggesting the Passenger Rail Commission and Rail Enterprise could accept the cash. The commission and enterprise were created in a 2009 special session on rail issues.

The number of signatories on the letter is significant 26 is the number of votes that would be necessary to override a Scott veto.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told the News Service of Florida that LaHood agreed to give them a week before he began looking into giving the money to other states like New York and California, who have already indicated they want it. However, LaHood did not immediately approve of the rail panel plan.

The enterprise could have the ability to independently move forward with Floridas plans for high-speed rail, the senators wrote, making the case that he should. Please give us the time necessary to work with the enterprise prior to re-allocating Floridas funds to another state. Politics should have no place in the future of Floridas transportation, as evidenced by this letter of bipartisan support.

Speaking with reporters as she collected signatures at the Florida Capitol Thursday, Dockery said that lawmakers and local officials in Central Florida were keeping all of their options open as they sought to react to Scotts decision this week. And not many of them involve the governor, she added.

Im hearing from Central Florida that the mayors are getting together talking about what they can do, Im hearing that the (metropolitan planning organizations) are talking about what they can do, Im hearing that Chambers of Commerce in Miami and other places are talking about what they can do so theres a lot of efforts going on, she said.

Dockery, R-Lakeland, said rail supporters were scrambling because they remember how quickly Florida received additional rail money that was turned down by newly elected Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin. Dockery said she had heard that LaHood was going to give Floridas rail money away by Friday unless a plan B to Scott changing his mind emerged.

Im hoping that Secretary LaHood will give us a little bit of time and not give Floridas money away so quickly, she said. I think theres a very good chance, because Floridas high-speed rail system was going to be the premier one in the country that was truly high-speed rail on a dedicated track, whereas most of these other projects were just incremental high-speed rail. This was kind of the showcase project nationally.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich indicated Thursday that her 12-member caucus would be willing to participate in any legislative effort to create an end-run around Scott on rail. That would likely be necessary because some of the most conservative Republicans in the Legislature are either opposed to rail or to the federal economic stimulus package that provided the money in the first place.

We certainly will be discussing it, Rich said, noting that Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander has suggested that because the Legislature appropriated some money for the train, Scott may not have the legal authority to unilaterally cancel the project.

I would agree with Senator Alexander and I hope that we can bring it back to the legislative process, she said. The congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats alike, worked so hard to get this money. It wasnt a partisan issue. Its an issue for Floridians.

Thursday morning, Alexander downplayed the idea of going around Scott, saying the governor is clear he doesn't want to move forward.

But in the immediate aftermath of Scotts announcement Wednesday that he was rejecting the rail money, Alexander made clear he had questions about the new governors legal ability to do so.

There is this pesky thing called a Constitution that limits authority, Alexander told reporters. I still believe the genius of America isnt just democracy but its divided government and limitations on each individuals ability to act unilaterally.

Alexander made clear that he was not necessarily in favor of the train and he did not sign Dockerys letter Thursday.

But the concerns are more process than result, he said.

All of us have had serious concerns about whether it really makes sense for our state and our nation to undertake the project, Alexander said after Scotts announcement. He said he would have liked to have seen whether private companies were willing to come forward and make up the difference between the federal award and the expected cost.

I would have liked to have seen the (private sector) bids come in and see where we really stand, Alexander said.

Meanwhile, some of the biggest nonlegislative proponents of the train continued to sharply criticize Scotts decision as they cheered efforts to work around it.

"At least today I'm not using four-letter words," said Rich Templin, vice president of one of the states largest labor unions, the AFL-CIO, which said it backed the idea because it believes the construction and the train would create jobs. This is a tragedy, a disaster of unmitigated proportions."

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