Hours after the Obama administration gave Florida Gov. Rick Scott a week to reconsider his opposition to a revised proposal for high-speed trains between Tampa and Orlando, the Republican kept up his harsh criticism of the project.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood offered the reprieve after meeting with Scott in Washington. At stake is $2.4 billion the federal government would take back if Scott doesn't approve the project.
"He asked me for additional information about the state's role in this project, the responsibilities of the Florida Department of Transportation, as well as how the state would be protected from liability," LaHood said in a statement. "He has committed to make a final decision by the end of next week."
If Scott balks, the money would be reallocated to one or more other states seeking high-speed rail funding, including California, New York and Rhode Island.
"I believe high speed rail is a federal boondoggle, as I said more than a week ago," Scott said. "I communicated to Secretary LaHood that as long as Florida remains on the hook for cost overruns, operating costs and pay-backs in the case of default, I will vigorously oppose this project."
As recently as Thursday night, LaHood told a meeting of U.S. mayors _ including several from Florida _ the project was dead and the money offered to Florida would go to other states, said Mort Downey, a top-level Clinton administration transportation official and an adviser to President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.
But after meeting with Scott, LaHood gave the governor until next Friday to make a decision on the revised proposal worked out with Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando and Miami officials to absolve the state of financial or legal obligation by turning the project over to the local governments.
Scott and the president have political capital riding on the Florida project.
Obama has sought to make a national high-speed rail system a signature project of his administration, but Republican governors elected in November in Wisconsin and Ohio have already killed two major projects approved by their Democratic predecessors. Without Florida, the administration would be left with one high-speed rail project in California that achieves the kind of speeds associated with trains in Europe and Asia.
If the Florida project dies, "it looks like the whole process is cratering," Downey said.
Politics, not policy, is at the root of the negotiations, said Anthony Perl, chairman of the National Research Council's intercity rail panel and an expert on high-speed rail.
"What this is about is making sure President Obama doesn't have a ribbon to cut just before the election in 2012," Perl said. "Florida is going to be a key state in presidential election."
Scott's decision to pull out, and his later rebuff of efforts by Florida members of Congress to keep it alive, has angered important political and business interests in Florida, Downey said.
The long-range vision is for the line to extend from Orlando to Miami, but no funding has been designated for that longer and more expensive leg.
The $2.4 billion federal grant would cover all except about $300 million of the expected cost for the Tampa-Orlando line.
Scott said the state cannot afford that. Downey said private contractors were on the eve of submitting proposals solicited by the state that would have picked up the cost and assumed other risks associated with building and operating the trains when Scott made his initial decision.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a statement that he was "grateful the governor has agreed to listen to the facts on how the state will have no financial responsibility."
"Hopefully, this will be enough time for people of good intentions to come together and put Florida's interests first," Nelson said. "There is too much at stake for us not to try everything we can."
U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House transportation committee, also said he hopes it will be to "salvage part or all of the project in a viable way that will protect Florida taxpayers from financial risk."
Construction could start quickly because Florida already owns most of the right of way. Tracks would be put down in the median of Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa.
Rail supporters including Nelson have chided Scott, who campaigned on a job creation platform, for potentially throwing away an opportunity to employ thousands of Floridians.
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, noted Florida's 12 percent unemployment rate and said Scott, a critic of the stimulus program, seemed "more interested politics than in creating jobs or improving the transportation system for Florida residents."
Lowy contributed to this report from Washington.