Florida Governor Rick Scott OK’s SunRail; Critics See Train Wreck Ahead

Jul 1, 2011

The following article was published in The Sunshine News on July 1, 2011:

Governor Rick Scott OKs SunRail; Critics see train wreck ahead

By Kenric Ward

Brushing off criticism from taxpayer and tea party groups, Gov. Rick Scott gave the go-ahead to the controversial SunRail commuter train on Friday.

Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad stood in for the governor in making the announcement in Tallahassee.

Scott is scheduled to hold a press conference in St. Petersburg at 1 p.m.

A political hot potato, SunRail has been the subject of months of intense debate and controversy. Scott, who previously rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds for a high-speed rail line, had a tougher call with SunRail, which is supported by key Republican leaders and Central Florida business interests.

In the end, the governor was boxed in by state legislators who had earmarked funds for the project before Scott assumed office in January. Legally, the governor concluded that he could not reverse course.

Before the governor’s office issued a press release on the decision, Florida Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Mark Wilson issued a statement applauding the governor and calling SunRail “a smart infrastructure investment.”

“This is another example of Governor Scott and the Legislature putting Florida’s long-term goals ahead of the short-term interests of a few,” Wilson said.

Tea party and taxpayer groups — which had inundated Scott’s office with e-mails and faxes urging him to shut down the project — were furious. One activist predicted the decision will “drive a wedge through his conservative base.”

Prasad got an earful Tuesday from both proponents and opponents when he conducted a “no-bailout tour” of Central Florida.


At each stop in Prasad’s four-county visit, business-suited advocates and grass-roots foes argued the merits and demerits of the project. The FDOT chief’s message was that the state would not bail out local governments for the rail line if it ran into financial problems.

Critics, including state Sen. Paula Dockery, see a fiscal train wreck coming. The Lakeland Republican says SunRail’s price tag has already ballooned, pointing to an FDOT document that pegs the 30-year costs at $2.66 billion. That document, which was nowhere to be seen Tuesday, doubles the advertised figure of $1.3 billion.

Beth Dillaha, head of Veto SunRail, says a “Full Funding Grant Agreement” with Washington puts the state of Florida — not just the four participating counties — on the hook. If the project isn’t completed or lurches into default, Florida would be obligated to repay the entire loan of $179 million to the federal government 

The Central Florida Partnership, a consortium of business groups and politicians, claims that Sunrail will generate 10,000 jobs “immediately.”

“Over the next 25 years, SunRail will create more than 250,000 jobs and create more than $8 billion in economic impact,” forecast Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Jose Gonzalez, vice president for government affairs at the Associated Industries of Florida, said, “SunRail is a critical element to Florida’s transportation future — paving the way for increased commerce, economic opportunity, more jobs and relief for Central Florida commuters contending with some of the state’s most congested highways.”

But Matthew Falconer, an Orlando area real-estate executive and SunRail opponent, estimates that SunRail will require up to $60 million in annual subsidies.

That estimate could be conservative, given that South Florida’s Tri-Rail, which carries three times SunRail’s projected ridership, continues to depend on government support.

“SunRail is being presented as a panacea to everything that ails Central Florida. Fact is, we’re talking about 2,150 riders. The Federal Transit Authority said this project will not serve the I-4 corridor,” said Dillaha, a former city commissioner in Winter Park.

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