Rail bill shortsighted

Published Friday, December 11, 2009

To hear lawmakers tell it, the rail bill sent to Gov. Charlie Crist last week was the best thing for Florida since the interstate highway system. The bill's short-term financial commitment for regional rail systems in South and Central Florida should win the state billions in federal grants for a high-speed train between Tampa and Orlando. And the legislation embraces rail in a big way for the first time, which will provide a boost to Tampa Bay's own commuter rail ambitions.

But the legislation comes nowhere close to providing the money Florida will need to build a viable statewide passenger rail system. Lawmakers will need to honestly address the costs if they want rail to meet the lofty goals they established last week.

Under the legislation, which Crist is expected to sign, Florida's Department of Transportation, an agency traditionally consumed only with road-building, will add a rail enterprise that will help local governments launch commuter rail programs. The structure brings a welcome level of coordination, ensuring that one rail system connects with another, which is vital to attracting passengers. The rail enterprise also will have up to $60 million annually, starting in 2014, to support rail projects throughout the state.

The bill will advance Tampa Bay's commuter rail effort. Hillsborough County commissioners are expected to vote early next year on whether to place a 1-cent sales tax for transit on the 2010 ballot. The legislation would provide a source of money for technical studies, capital and other startup costs — and the state would pay for operational costs for seven years.

While lawmakers established a broad policy for rail, they did not back it up with the serious dollars that passenger rail will require. The bill commits up to $15 million a year to Tri-Rail, the commuter line serving Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. That amount barely covers Tri-Rail's current operating deficit (which already is offset by state subsidies). The money for Tri-Rail also comes from an anticipated increase in gas-tax collections that is expected to start drying up rapidly by 2014.

And the state rail enterprise's $60 million pot is a redirection of documentary stamp tax money now going toward regional growth management efforts. Some cities may be left with less to fight sprawl in order to finance rail elsewhere in the state.

Beyond the fairness issue, $60 million is nowhere near what will be needed to build a robust rail network. The 61-mile SunRail commuter line through greater Orlando is expected to cost $1.2 billion. The state wants $2.5 billion from Washington to build the Tampa-Orlando leg of a high-speed rail line; continuing to Miami would cost another $10 billion or more. While the rail enterprise budget is seed money, $60 million is paltry compared to what Florida will need if its major cities jump in the game and it is not a particularly reliable source of revenue.

The bill also sets bad precedents for other communities such as Tampa Bay that are exploring commuter rail. The state overpaid CSX for the tracks to be used for SunRail and made taxpayers liable for some accidents in SunRail's corridor that are caused by the freight carrier. The department will need to show a greater sense of accountability and transparency, especially as it intends to contract with a third-party to operate and maintain the high-speed rail system. It will need to help local governments drive better deals than what the state secured with CSX.

While the Legislature created a viable framework to get rail moving, it could have acted much more responsibly with respect to the initial costs and legal liability. Hopefully, it sent the right message to Washington to attract federal dollars and to the private-sector players that will develop the rail corridors. But the state's work is far from done. Legislators eventually will have to revisit how and how much public money is set aside to ensure passenger rail service has a future in Florida.


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