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Rick Scott announces potential high-speed rail linking Tampa and Orlando

State officials will consider private bids to build a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando, reviving a dormant project to link the two cities, Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday.

Brightline, the high-speed railroad linking Miami and West Palm Beach with hopes of reaching Orlando, said it has put it in a bid to build track along Interstate 4, leasing land owned by the state and the Central Florida Expressway Authority.

"As one of the nation's fastest growing regions, Tampa Bay is a natural extension for Brightline," said Patrick Goddard, president and COO of Brightline, in a statement. "We are currently engaged in the (bidding) process, which is the first step needed to extend the system to the Tampa Bay region."

Ostensibly, taxpayer dollars would not be used, sidestepping the reason why Scott struck down a similar rail proposal seven years ago.

"This is an exciting opportunity for Orlando, Tampa and our entire state," Scott said in a statement. "Instead of placing taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, our goal is for the private sector to invest in this project."

Brightline's pitch has prompted the Florida Department of Transportation to open up for other competitive bids. Interested parties would have 120 days to submit proposals.

Where the rail would go, how many stops it would have and the cost of a ride are details that are likely years away, but Tampa Bay officials praised the news as long overdue.

Such a connection opens up a host of opportunities, such as those in Orlando attending Rays games or Tampa Bay residents taking the train to an NBA game. Out-of-state tourists no longer have to choose between Tampa Bay's beaches and Orlando's amusement parks.

And residents who commute between the two cities for work or play would have an alternative to the unpredictable, often anger-inducing traffic jams that line I-4.

"It's a no brainer from a transportation perspective," Forward Pinellas Executive Director Whit Blanton said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, a Democrat and the board's loudest voice for transportation, said she remains "greatly disturbed" that Scott canceled the high speed rail money in 2011, putting the region behind when it could have become "one of the leaders in the nation if not internationally with a high speed rail."

Nevertheless, she said she was "excited by the news" and hopes it will help the county's transportation quagmire.

"It has reached that point," she said. "Everywhere in the nation there's been huge pushes for transportation options. We need to take a giant leap forward."

Weeks after he took office in 2011, Scott turned down $2.4 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail connecting to the two cities, stunning lawmakers throughout the state.

"The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits," Scott said in 2011.

Transit advocates, including the Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman have spent the past seven years wondering how things would have been different had Scott not rejected those federal dollars in 2011.

"It would have been done by now and functioning," Buckhorn said Friday of the 2011 opportunity. "But that was (Scott's) prerogative and there was nothing I could do to change that decision."

While both mayors were disappointed the region had to wait an additional seven years, they said they were still encouraged.

"This is exciting news and certainly applaud the private sector for recognizing the important impact mass transit can have not only on quality of life but economic development efforts," Kriseman said.

But the announcement also prompted questions of election-year antics.

Scott is challenging Sen. Bill Nelson this year, and the Friday announcement prompted Philip Levine, Miami Beach Mayor and Democratic governor hopeful, to wonder on Twitter: "Another-election year ploy?"

"No, it's not," said Ed Turanchik, a Democrat and Hillsborough County commissioner in the 1990s, when another high-speed rail project was conceived. Gov. Jeb Bush later killed it in one of his first acts as governor. "It's very real. The third times a charm, maybe."

In his Friday announcement, Scott justified quashing the project years ago because it carried "an extremely high risk of overspending taxpayer dollars with no guarantee of economic growth."

But the bids back then would have required companies bidding on the project to cover any cost overruns and operating losses from low ridership.

Scott said that he didn't believe the companies, and that Florida taxpayers would have been on the hook for $1 billion. Politifact rated the latter claim "false" in 2011.

"Here's my experience in business," he said then. "If you enter into a project where it's not a good transaction for the other side it always comes back to be a problem for you. My concern with this is, you look at the ridership studies, and I don't think there's anyway anyone's going to get a return."

Kriseman and Blanton said one drawback of privately-financed rail is that ticket prices could be higher.

But the impact of the potential high-speed rail corridor goes beyond just linking two cities, Buckhorn said.

The project has the ability to motivate local transit projects that politicians and advocates have been trying for years to get up and running in Tampa Bay, such as an expanded street car in downtown Tampa, bus rapid transit between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches and a three-county bus rapid transit line that would connect St. Petersburg, Tampa, University of South Florida and Wesley Chapel.

The I-4 rail line "will drive a greater sense of urgency in this discussion about local mobility options," Buckhorn said. "It will be a great shot in the arm for the effort to try to get something on the ballot this fall," he added, referring to a citizen lead initiative to add a one-cent sales tax for transportation referendum in Hillsborough.

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