High-speed rail supporters rally in downtown Tampa as officials call for private sector investment

02/21/11 Kate Bradshaw
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High-speed rail backers announced they have a plan to get the project back on the table despite criticism from the governor. Today rail advocates showed their support for the project in Downtown Tampa, and were met with a smaller crowd in opposition.

Activists dusted off their pro-and anti-rail signs from last fall and flooded City Hall Plaza to make the case for – and against – high speed rail. Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern said the project would create thousands of jobs, but its benefits don’t stop there.

Last week the governor announced he won’t take the more than $2 billion in federal stimulus funds for a high-speed rail line initially connecting Tampa to Orlando. He said he didn’t think ridership would justify financial risk to taxpayers. Some lawmakers have since been scrambling to come up with a plan that would bypass the chopping block. Today they announced that they’d try to do so by way of private sector dollars. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said the proposal wouldn’t put Florida taxpayers on the hook for the project.

Yesterday US Senator Bill Nelson floated this by Governor Scott, who said he was skeptical of the idea, but might be open to it. Iorio said once project supporters have their legal ducks in a row, they’ll need the state to turn over right-of-way along the I-4 corridor to the interlocal agency that would be created to oversee the project. They’ll also need technical assistance from the Florida Department of Transportation, approval of the governor, and that of local governments. Iorio stressed that the private entity taking on the project would be contractually bound to keep project costs off the taxpayers.

Democratic US Representative Kathy Castor said the project appeals to private companies in part because much of the groundwork has already been done.

Former Tampa City Council Member Linda Saul-Sena helped organize the Downtown Tampa rally. She said doesn’t care how it’s done; what’s important is that the concept move forward.

Shortly after the conference call, throngs of people flocked to Downtown Tampa to rally for and against rail. Advocates say the project could create as many as twenty thousand jobs to the I-4 corridor, while opponents say it’s an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars. Representative Kathy Castor said she was happy to see such a turnout, but she also expected it.

Mixing among vocal supporters of high speed rail were vocal opponents of the project. Karen Jaroch, Chair of the Tampa 9-12 Project, said she’s skeptical that a private company would be able to carry out the project at no cost to taxpayers.

Pinellas 9-12 Project member Kim Cameron said she’s strongly against the plan that’s since been scrapped, but she’d be open to a project that was of no risk to taxpayers.

A high speed rail supporter named Shelley, who didn’t give a last name, said Scott’s rejection of high speed rail betrays his jobs-heavy campaign platform.

US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has given the high speed rail supporters until Friday to come up with an alternative plan to fund high speed rail. US Department of Transportation officials are expected to come to Florida this week to discuss the proposed fix.

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