Florida Gov. Rick Scott Plays Politics with High-Speed Rail Funds

Florida's governor has no fiscal reason to reject the money, only a political one.

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s announcement that he would reject $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money to build a high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando may generate the same reaction from other states as I display when someone at a dinner party piously turns down the chocolate torte: more for me.

Except that public transportation, especially a rail network, is not chocolate. It’s not an indulgence, not a special treat one makes up for with an extra-long run the next morning. It’s a long-overdue investment in infrastructure, and one that will have positive effects on both the economy and the environment. [Take the U.S. News poll: Should the government fund high-speed rail?]

Scott, a conservative Republican elected last November, cited budget worries in announcing Wednesday he would forgo the cash. "You don't have to be an economic expert to know when you spend more money than you take in, you will fail," Scott said at a hastily-called news conference. [Read an op-ed: High Speed Rail Is Key to Economic Development.]

That’s true—and refreshingly responsible, in theory. The project would cost $280 million in matching funds. Except that the private companies which want the contracts to build the project have already indicated their willingness to cough up the cash themselves, the Orlando Sentinel reports. So there’s no serious fiscal reason to turn down the money, only a political one. This is a governor who appears determined to rebuff anything attached to the GOP-hated stimulus bill on principle. Is it to make sure the program doesn’t succeed? Or is our car culture so deeply ingrained that some people can’t stomach the idea of sparing the air and the roads of further congestion? [ See the 10 best cities for public transportation.]

Another of the state’s Republicans, Rep. John Mica, sees the folly of the announcement, saying in a statement:

I am deeply disappointed in the decision to not move forward with the Orlando to Tampa passenger rail project. This is a huge setback for the state of Florida, our transportation, economic development, and important tourism industry.

Floridians hope Mica’s view will prevail. But California and any other state aware of the value of high-speed rail may be rewarded if Scott succeeds: more for them.