TAMPA — Former state Sen. Paula Dockery, a former political ally of Gov. Rick Scott but now a critic, says Scott assured her shortly after taking office in early 2011 that he planned to accept $2.4 billion in federal economic stimulus money for a Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail system.
That was days before he announced he was rejecting the money, creating a national political stir.
In an interview and at a recent Tiger Bay Club speech, Dockery said Scott made her the promise during a private conversation after a dinner at the governor's mansion in early February 2011.
She said Scott also told her he hoped to stop work on another rail project, the SunRail central Florida commuter line, which had passed the state Legislature before he took office. Scott later approved continuing SunRail.
Democrats, rail advocates and others have criticized Scott for turning down the high-speed plan, saying it cost Florida an opportunity to create jobs while getting started on a system that could alleviate Central Florida's bad and worsening traffic congestion.
The Tampa-Orlando line was intended to be the centerpiece of an initiative by the Obama administration to begin a nationwide high-speed rail network.
Some rail transportation advocates, including Dockery, opposed SunRail as a bad deal for Florida taxpayers.
Scott's press office didn't respond directly to a request to confirm or deny Dockery's account. Instead, a press spokesman sent links to documents and news clips stating Scott's public position on the issue.
Dockery, a public affairs columnist, writes opinion articles that appear in publications including The Tampa Tribune.
She said the dinner at the governor's mansion was for the handful of legislators who had supported Scott in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary against Bill McCollum, the choice of the Republican Party establishment for the nomination.
Dockery, a Republican and at the time a state senator from Lakeland, campaigned for governor in the primary. She dropped out after Scott entered the primary race because she thought she and Scott would split the anti-McCollum vote and that Scott's plans to spend millions of his own money on his campaign meant she would have no chance.
Scott then asked her to be his adviser on environment and transportation issues, she said. Whether Scott would back the high-speed rail and SunRail projects became a subject of intense speculation after he won the governorship in November 2010.
During his campaign, including at a debate in October with Democratic opponent Alex Sink, Scott had expressed skepticism about the high-speed rail project but not outright rejection.
Dockery said Scott hadn't been fully briefed on it at the time of the mansion dinner.
“His public statements before that evening had been lukewarm at best,” she said in an interview. “People were saying it doesn't look good, but I was saying I think he'll be with us.”
Dockery said she had planned to brief Scott on both projects after the dinner and had brought a side-by-side comparison with her.
When she got out the documents to start going through them, “He said, 'You don't have to go any further, I've decided I'm going to take the high-speed rail money,'” she said in her speech Sept. 20 to the Tiger Bay Club. “'Don't say anything to the media about it but I'm going to take the money.'”
“I said. 'Governor, that's fabulous.'”
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.”
Dockery said Scott told her his staff was investigating whether it would be possible to halt work on the SunRail project.
About two weeks later, Dockery said, she got word the governor was trying to reach her through an incorrect phone number. She immediately called him.
“By the time I called the governor, he had already had a press conference announcing he was going to send the money back,” she said in the interview.
She said she never told any reporters about the reversal or spoke publicly about it “because he asked me not to go to the media.”
Scott announced his rejection of the high-speed rail money in a Feb. 16, 2011, news conference.
The Obama administration had offered Florida $2.4 billion for the 85-mile, Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed line to run in the median of Interstate 4, where space was set aside for rail when the highway was built. It was to be the first leg of a system designed to reach Miami.
By the time Scott took office, the state had begun planning work for the project, and the Legislature had committed to spend $300 million for the state's share.
Federal officials and the state Department of Transportation had said the high-speed line wouldn't cost the state any money; private bidders had pledged to pay the state's share.
According to a Florida DOT report, released months after Scott's decision in a response to a Tribune public records request, two consulting firms hired to evaluate the bonds for the project said it would have shown an operating surplus within a decade.
But Scott said ridership and revenue projections for rail projects “are historically over-optimistic” and that the state would be forced to come up with millions in subsidies. He said construction cost overruns “could put Florida taxpayers on the hook for $3 billion.”
In making his case, Scott appeared to rely heavily on a study by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank. The project director for its study had served on Scott's transition team.
The state expects to spend more than $500 million on the $1.28 billion, 61-mile SunRail commuter line favored by local elected officials including U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Haven.
Critics call it a boondoggle benefitting CSX railway. CSX will sell its tracks to the state for the project then continue to operate trains on them and is free from liability for damages from accidents even if CSX is at fault.
Dockery has said she couldn't support Scott for governor again, but didn't name a candidate she would back.
She said she would like to see a qualified independent candidate, and also said she admired Alex Sink of Tampa, who has announced she won't run for governor.