By Eric Jaffe, November 4, 2013
The Obama administration had grand plans for a national high-speed rail network, but they didn't stay grand very long. After the 2010 midterm elections, new Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida spoiled hopes of such a system by rejecting federal money for routes through their states. At the time, the three governors cited fiscal responsibility as their official reasoning, but the situation always had the feel of political collusion.
A new report in the Tampa Tribune adds some spice to that notion. The paper details an interesting exchange between one of these governors, Rick Scott of Florida, and Paula Dockery, a (now former) political ally who favored the proposed high-speed route from Tampa to Orlando. Dockery tells the paper that Scott promised her in February 2011 that he'd accept $2.4 billion in federal money pledged for the project — in no uncertain terms:
Dockery said she warned Scott he would get intense pressure from fellow Republicans to reject it "because it looks like Obama wins" if the project succeeds.
"There were other Republican governors who were turning down rail money," she said in the interview. "That was kind of the national plan of the Republican governors."
"He said, 'Don't worry about it.' ... His mind already was made up," she added. "There was no misinterpretation."Apparently his mind wasn't made up, because two weeks later Scott announced that he was declining the money. So what do we learn from this insider's revelation? Well, for one thing, it strongly suggests that the series of high-speed rail refusals had as much (if not more) to do with petty politics as with fiscal prudence. Beyond that, we're left to wonder if Scott himself received direct political pressure to change his position.
Florida's high-speed route was supposed to be the first piece of Obama's national network and the model for other cities and states around the country to follow. The line was far from ideal: it was far too short, at just 84 miles, which meant that it would compete with car travel instead of air travel. At the same time, the project was fully funded, could have been finished by 2015, and always kept the option of one day extending to Miami.
But these weren't the problems that Scott emphasized in his February 16, 2011, letter to then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood turning down the funding [PDF]. Instead, Scott focused on concerns that cost overruns would put Florida taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars. In fact, several companies had already agreed to cover any excess costs, and studies determined that ticket revenue would have covered the train's operating expenses — as is the case for most high-speed rail lines around the world.
Dockery's comments raise a lot of questions about the timeline of Scott's decision. The governor's concerns over a possible cost overrun were reportedly based on a Reason Foundation analysis opposing the project that was released in January 2011. If Scott still believed he would accept the money in early February, as Dockery claims, then one of several things must have occurred before his February 16 announcement:
- Scott read the analysis in January and found it unconvincing, then had a massive change of heart toward it shortly after his promise to Dockery.
- The report came to Scott's attention after his discussion with Dockery, which means his earlier favorable opinion toward high-speed rail had been formed by other reports or information he later discarded.
- Scott actually based his decision on factors unrelated to the report and simply cited it out of convenience.
What's most upsetting about the Tribune report — though in a way also a little encouraging — is that it shows the death of Obama's high-speed rail plan was not inevitable. Many Republicans involved in the story clearly favored the idea: from LaHood to Dockery to former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who initially accepted the federal money for his state. This wasn't a widespread Republican refusal; it was a localized extreme Republican refusal. The distinction is important to recognize.
The coda to all this, as rail blogger Robert Cruickshank points out, is that Scott's decision to halt high-speed rail may soon bring his own time in office to an end. Crist, now a Democrat, has decided to run against Scott in the next election and currently leads polling by 12 points. He will no doubt be portrayed as a flip-flopper, going from one party to another, but now he can portray his opponent as the same.