tbo: Tampa Bay Online.
Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
  • Home

Scott’s choo-choo troubles (mostly) refuted

Rick Scott is catching heat for what seems to be double-talk coming out of his administration over its support for passenger rail. Let’s have a peek.

On one hand, citing concerns over the risk to Florida taxpayers, the governor killed the high-speed rail scheme linking Tampa and Orlando that was part of the Obama administration’s first-term “stimulus” package.

On the other hand, the state has committed more than $230 million for a variety of projects that will benefit, directly or otherwise, “All Aboard Florida,” a privately funded rail project connecting the Gold and Treasure coasts, with Miami at the southern tip, to Orlando. The bulk — $217 million — is committed to what the Department of Transportation describes as a “multimodal” terminal at Orlando International Airport.

Smells of hypocrisy, right? It doesn’t help the governor’s case that Adam Hollingsworth, now Scott’s chief-of-staff, was his adviser on transportation when the federal money was rejected in early 2011. Or that Hollingsworth’s resume includes a stint at Flagler Development, a subsidiary of Fortress Investment Group, All Aboard Florida’s parent company, making it all seem just a little too cozy.

Nor does it help that when called on the apparent self-contradictions, Scott treats us like storm troopers and he’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.

“The All Aboard Florida proposal is a private sector venture to construct, operate and maintain a passenger rail system. There will be no state subsidies for this project.”

Well, there’s plenty more to it than that, isn’t there? Scott’s “this is not the rail project you’re looking for” hardly explains the public dollars flowing into the OIA terminal. Would it help if he kept repeating that the venture has been on FDOT’s to-do list since the 1990s, and includes needed improvements that have nothing to do with rail? Probably not. The sudden sense of urgency seems awfully convenient.

OK, so there’s no way Scott wins on this. Still, it’s hard to shake the notion that some – probably most – of the indignation is ginned up. The only other explanation is his critics don’t know their fruits.

For instance, Scott is being pilloried for his silence on All Aboard Florida seeking a billion and change to refinance its debt, having spurned Washington’s money for the Tampa-to-Orlando route, as if the situations were comparable. Plainly, they are not.

The money offered by the feds was for a start-up project that would have exposed Florida taxpayers to cost overruns like those being experienced by Californians after Sacramento bit down, hard, on Washington’s high-speed bait. The refinancing sought by All Aboard Florida is a separate deal involving no direct risk to Floridians beyond that borne by all U.S. taxpayers. Apples, meet oranges.

Moreover, an assault on the OIA improvement, even if it were exclusively for All Aboard Florida trains, is a red herring.

Governments site, build, operate and maintain terminals, stations and ports (whether air- or water-based) used by private industry for the conveyance of people and goods. That’s the way we arrange things in the United States, and the millions slated for the station in Orlando are strictly in keeping with that tradition. As that fact is inescapable, the governor and his spokespeople would be well-served by pointing it out as many times as is necessary.

Scott can’t assume, especially in an election year, that his constituents understand and appreciate this sensible and time-honored public-private handshake. Explanatory repetition is required, tireless repetition, after all, being the soul of effective messaging.