Analysis: All Aboard Florida becoming a statewide issue

Publish Date: 
Saturday, July 26, 2014 - 8:30am

By Arnie Rosenberg July 25th TCPalm

It threatens to turn into an issue in the governor’s race. Although All Aboard Florida runs through only eight of Florida’s 67 counties, the specter of “the S word” — subsidies — and other All Aboard Florida-related concerns already are making this a bigger issue than anyone would have imagined.

“It makes for potential controversy and political dynamite in some ways,” said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University. “It does have potential to become a statewide issue.”

Indeed, even All Aboard Florida acknowledges that its $2.25 billion project has taken on a life of its own. In a news release Thursday, responding to what it labeled “inaccuracies and misinformation” in a Tampa Bay Times editorial, the railroad conceded that “All Aboard Florida has become a political football passed between political parties to campaigns to wealthy residents in gated communities.”

In part, the current controversy is rooted in recent history — Gov. Rick Scott’s 2011 rejection of $2.4 billion for a federally funded high-speed passenger train and recurring questions about Scott’s own financial past. But the distrust of anything to do with high-speed rail goes back to 2000, when Florida voters mandated development of high-speed rail, only to have Gov. Jeb Bush four years later lobby successfully to have the requirement yanked from the state constitution.

All Aboard Florida, however, is incendiary in its own right.

The state continues to fight the belief by some that it’s got money in the game, for its $213.5 million commitment to a transportation hub at Orlando International Airport, where All Aboard Florida will lease station space; for the $10 million the Legislature approved to help communities across the state pay for quiet zones at rail crossings; or for All Aboard Florida’s own suggestion that — in the future — it might seek state money to connect Tri-Rail into its Miami station.

There are questions, as well, about Scott’s personal ties to the project.

The Scripps/Tampa Tribune Capital Bureau last month reported that Adam Hollingsworth, Scott’s chief of staff, previously worked for an All Aboard Florida sister company and worked behind the scenes to line up support from the governor and top administration officials.

“An issue like this — personal ties to the project, even if it’s through a friend — triggers the backdrop of questions (about Scott),” deHaven-Smith said. “That makes the relationship significantly larger than it would be otherwise.

“That’s the kind of thing that resonates across the state,” he said. “Traffic (in southeast Florida) is an isolated issue. But money and rectitude raise questions. This can be a lighting rod in Florida, particularly with (Scott’s) background.”

As the tentacles of All Aboard Florida grow more entwined in gubernatorial politics, they’re also getting under the skin of Scott’s top folks.

State Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad used a three-paragraph letter to All Aboard Florida President Michael Reininger “to again restate that All Aboard Florida is not receiving any state funding.” In response to a report about money for a Tri-Rail link, Prasad told Reininger, “As we have previously discussed with your company, the department will not invest state dollars in your project.”

Just last week, Time magazine’s website suggested Hollingsworth’s possible All Aboard Florida conflict could turn from a “mess” for Scott into a “scandal.”

Crist earlier this month told Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers the project “doesn’t smell right,” and he believed Hollingsworth’s involvement calls for an investigation, a position he’s unlikely to change, at least in areas where All Aboard Florida remains a hot-button issue.

And Scott, who for months avoided being pulled into the fray, told Reininger in a letter last month, “I want to be clear on a critical point: The All Aboard Florida proposal is a private-sector venture. ... There will be no state subsidies for this project.”

“Many, many residents are very alarmed, and I believe it will become an issue in the governor’s race,” she said. “There are long-term cost concerns that somehow touch the entire state of Florida.

“This isn’t just the Treasure Coast anymore,” said Traylor, who met earlier this month in Tallahassee with Prasad. “The governor’s got to recognize there will be repercussions if he doesn’t take a position on these detrimental impacts. The taxpayers will hold legislators responsible on this project.”