Senators Urged to Allow Private Companies to Bid on Rail

With the state unwilling to pick up the $280 million tab, private companies could step in to save the high-speed connection between Tampa and Orlando.

TALLAHASSEE - With Gov. Rick Scott and Senate President Mike Haridopolos indicating they don't want to put any state money into a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando, the pressure is on private companies to pick up Florida's $280 million tab for the project.

"There's a tremendous amount we can get from these companies. They want this deal," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, a member of the Florida Statewide Passenger Rail Commission, at a meeting Tuesday. "We are the first in the country to take on such a project. What that means is we have, I believe, an unbelievable amount of leverage."

Ring made his comments after a presentation on high-speed rail for the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee by Kevin Thibault, executive director of the state Department of Transportation's Florida Rail Enterprise.

The federal government has awarded Florida $2.4 billion to build the 85-mile segment connecting Tampa to Orlando, leaving about $280 million in construction costs uncovered.

Thibault said plans call for asking private companies interested in building the project to make up the shortfall.

"We might find we've got some of them that will pay the whole thing," said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater who chairs the Senate's transportation committee. "Before we pull the plug on it because we don't want to spend the $280 million, we ought to give the private vendors time to put that in their bid. Let them put their money where their mouth is."

Latvala's committee was also briefed Tuesday by Thibault.

Seven business consortia from around the world have shown an interest in bidding on the project. They already know they will have to absorb any construction cost overruns or operating losses if ridership is low.

Thibault said a request for proposals would go out this year, with responses due this fall. A vendor would be selected and construction would begin next year, with trains running as early as 2015.

Slayter Bayliss, who in 2004 helped then-Gov. Jeb Bush kill a constitutional amendment requiring Florida to build a bullet train, is now working for Florida High Speed Rail LLC, which is part of a consortium of American and Japanese companies looking to bid on the project.

Bayliss told Latvala's committee that this time around, the train has overcome the negatives it faced six years ago: There's a defined route, federal money and private sector involvement.

"If the Legislature is unhappy with the bids and the risk that is left after those bids come in, that would be the point to dig into the details," he said, noting there's no reason to let "political undercurrents" sidetrack the train.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said building the line is likely to create more than 20,000 jobs at no cost to the state.

"It's such a no-brainer it's amazing we're even considering not doing it," she told the Commerce Committee.

Dockery also popped in on the Senate's Transportation Committee meeting to make the pitch for the train.

In both meetings, she pointed out that Central Florida's Sun Rail is going forward even though state taxpayers are bearing a huge burden to make it happen, and high-speed rail might require nothing from Florida's coffers.

Pressure on Gov. Scott to back high-speed rail is coming from all around.

On Saturday, Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara met with the governor in Tallahassee.

At a news conference afterward, Maehara said he talked to Scott about the safety and efficiency of Japan's high-speed rail system, and told reporters it would not just create jobs, but could open more doors with Japan.

And in Tampa on Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, implored Scott to support the line.

"Please, governor, don't come to the conclusion that you're going to turn your back on high-speed rail," Nelson said to a gathering of business leaders and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, a group with a key interest in high-speed rail.

Nelson said he told Scott during a Washington visit that supporting high-speed rail should be one of his top priorities.

Times/Herald reporter Marc Caputo and Times staff writer