Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Florida Gov. Rick Scott are digging in to some pretty serious questions about high-speed rail. Scott has been on the verge of rejecting some $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail money for weeks. As of Friday, LaHood and Scott had agreed to wait another week before spiking the Florida project. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has weighed in with a modified version of the state's original high-speed rail plan, saying "the 21-mile segment from the Orlando Airport to the Convention Center and Disney World can be a feasible and profitable transportation link for Florida." Scott has raised questions about whether Florida would bear financial or legal liabilities for the project. Transportation Department officials have assured him that the state won't bear the risk for the project and that there is strong private-sector interest building and operating the system.
This conversation is considerably more in-depth than the previous high-speed rail scuffles with DOT in Wisconsin and Ohio, where the governors flat-out rejected the funds and LaHood just as quickly redirected their $1.2 billion to other states. Scott is asking legitimate questions about just how much his state would be on the hook for a rail project. Mica wants to make sure that any project that receives the green light will have the ridership to make it successful. The administration wants to make sure that infrastructure developments don't die on the vine, taking jobs and economic growth with them.
Is this a sea change? Can a rational conversation about the pros and cons of high-speed rail projects spur transportation thinkers across the country to find innovative ways to keep worthy projects alive? Does it matter what the outcome is -- whether Scott takes the money or not -- if it means the administration and the states' governors can think more creatively about how major transit projects can work? How can members of the transportation community help the conversation?