Mica: Private sector must kick in money for high-speed rail
TAMPA - The Republican leader expected to chair the powerful House transportation committee in January said Thursday he remains supportive of the Tampa to Orlando segment of Florida's proposed high-speed rail project. However, U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, said in an interview that completing Florida's project will likely have to be tied to the private sector kicking in money beyond the $2.05 billion in federal funds designated to build the $2.6 billion, 88-mile route. "I will look at it with a critical eye and look at what makes sense," Mica said. "The last thing we want is to build a dog that has to be highly subsidized by taxpayers." Mica's comments helped clarify the high-speed rail outlook that became muddled in media reports after Tuesday's elections. Nationwide results raised questions about Republican backing for President Obama's signature transportation endeavor.Florida House Democrats on Thursday reinforced support for Florida's high-speed rail project. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, a high-speed rail proponent with strong White House ties who was re-elected to her third term, said Mica will become a bigger force for transportation, but "everyone is pulling in the same direction." "High speed rail is about the Florida economy, and folks already are working up and down the I-4 corridor on the project," she said. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, reiterated Thursday that Florida's delegation was solid in its commitment to the state's high-speed project. "Sen. Nelson, Congressman Mica and I are committed to high-speed rail," she said in a statement following her re-election. "If Governor-elect Scott is truly committed to creating jobs and preparing the state of Florida for the future, he will fully support a comprehensive transportation system in the state that includes high-speed rail, commuter rail and public transit." State Sen. Paula Dockery, wife of C.C. "Doc" Dockery who is regarded as the father of Florida's high-speed rail movement, serves on Scott's advisory team. "I'm certainly trying to convince him of the benefits of high-speed rail," she said, noting that Scott's public responses on the issue have softened a bit. Dockery doesn't know that Scott will be "the biggest cheerleader" for it, but "I don't think his goal is to go out and kill it." Some of Scott's Republican colleagues in other states, however, have taken a strong stance against high-speed rail. Gov.-elect Scott Walker of Wisconsin, pledged in his campaign to kill a proposed high-speed link between Madison and Milwaukee, and incoming Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared rail was dead in his state. In Hillsborough County on Tuesday, voters rejected a sales tax increase to help fund a light rail system that would have taken passengers to and from a planned high-speed station downtown. Transportation planners consider viable, local transit connections essential to fulfilling the potential that high-speed rail can provide. Mica said he has not yet had a chance to talk with Tampa area officials on what's possible to provide connections on the Tampa end given the failure of the Tuesday referendum. "That was disappointing, but failure at first is not uncommon," Mica said. He added that a light rail proposal for Orlando had been voted down by the county commission before another plan to create a commuter rail line succeeded it. Mica last year powered the Orlando area commuter rail plan into reality using his influence to help persuade the state Legislature to provide $641 million to purchase CSX rail lines. The lack of commuter rail in Orlando, he made clear, would jeopardize chances Florida had to gain high-speed funding under the direction of one of his Washington connections, Ray LaHood, U.S. Secretary of Transportation who served with Mica in the House. Mica on Thursday appeared to leave open the chance that the high-speed rail project could be delayed into Tampa pending the financial response by firms bidding next year to design, build, operate and maintain the system. But he indicated he wants the Tampa-Lakeland-Orlando route to work. "I want private dollars involved in this," Mica said. "If someone in the private sector puts up $500 million and that's $100 million short - I'm in an excellent position to assist. But I don't want the private sector to see this as a gravy train."
Reporter Catherine Whittenburg contributed to this report.