TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Friday that he plans to send $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funding intended for Florida to other states after the state Supreme Court upheld Gov. Rick Scott's decision to reject the money.
The Republican governor's decision effectively kills the Tampa-Orlando route, but Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said LaHood later agreed to consider a last-ditch attempt to revive the project. His idea is to let a regional rail authority in central Florida compete with other states for the money Scott rejected.
"If it can't be done, then we're done," Nelson said, calling the proposal a "Hail Mary pass."
Until Scott's election in November, the Florida route had been on track to become a leading example of how the Obama administration's stimulus plan is creating jobs and reviving the nation's passenger rail system.
Several states, including New York, Virginia, Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island, have asked LaHood for Florida's rail funds. But the only project that would achieve the high speeds associated with bullet trains in Asia and Europe would be California's.
"I know that states across America are enthusiastic about receiving additional support to help bring America's high-speed rail network to life and deliver all its economic benefits to their citizens," LaHood said in a statement.
Scott submitted a formal rejection of the funding shortly after a Friday morning telephone conversation with LaHood. Friday was Scott's deadline to accept the money.
Nelson said LaHood told him he would have his lawyers review the regional rail authority idea – which would not involve the state – next week. It would include Tampa, Orlando, Lakeland and Miami. The Orlando-Tampa route is envisioned as the first leg of a system that eventually would extend to Miami.
"The best project – why the secretary has hung in there with us – the best project in the entire country is right here" in Florida, Nelson said in Miami, where he announced a $22 million federal grant for a rail project at the city's port.
Scott, an outspoken critic of the stimulus program, had said the rail project would put Florida taxpayers on the hook for billions in cost overruns and operating subsidies.
State Sens. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, and Thad Altman, a Viera Republican, disagreed and sued Scott. Joyner said in a statement that the lawsuit sends a message to the governor that his actions will not always go unchallenged.
"Just because he can do it, does not make it right," Joyner said.
They said overruns and subsidies would be the responsibility of the private company contracted to build and operate the system and argued state law gave Scott no choice but to accept the money.
The Supreme Court issued a brief but unanimous decision siding with Scott less than 24 hours after hearing oral arguments. The unsigned opinion said the senators did not show they were entitled to an emergency court order that would have required Scott to accept the money.
Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said in a statement that Scott was pleased with the court's decision.
"He is now focused on moving forward with infrastructure projects that create long-term jobs and turn Florida's economy around," he said.
The ruling disappointed rail boosters such as Nelson, who said a rail system would have eased congestion on an interstate system that's already clogged during rush hour.
"And it's unfortunate for the 24,000 people that will not have these jobs in the next few years," Nelson said.
LaHood thought he'd found another way to insulate the state from liability by letting local governments manage the project, but that plan still required some state involvement and Scott's approval.
Scott is the third Republican governor elected in November to kill rail projects approved by his predecessor. Governors in Wisconsin and Ohio also turned down funds previously agreed to by Democrats for the national high-speed rail system, which President Barack Obama wants to make a signature project of his administration.
In Florida, the money had been accepted by Republican-turned-independent Charlie Crist, who lost a U.S. Senate race last year.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.