Central Florida Commuter Rail Fast Running Out Of Steam
April 5, 2009
Central Florida's commuter rail project, SunRail, is in big trouble in Tallahassee. The questionable $1.2 billion deal between the state Department of Transportation and CSX Transportation to buy 61 miles of track near Orlando and divert freight traffic through the center of the state to a new hub in Winter Haven is running out of time. It may not even get a hearing in the Senate.
That would be good news for Florida's taxpayers. Although almost everyone recognizes the state's need for alternative transportation, this deal - hatched in the shadows featuring ever-changing costs to the state and impossible demands from the railroad - deserves to be shelved.
The only thing driving it now is the promise of federal matching dollars that may not materialize. Lawmakers have been assured of the money, but a promise is not an appropriation.
Although the House is expected to support the commuter rail project, a bill that would have the state assume most of the liability should there be an accident between freight and commuter trains has been held up by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, chairman of the Senate transportation committee. It won't be heard anytime soon, and with the clock ticking down, the general talk at the Capitol is that the project is doomed.
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who has led the opposition to the CSX giveaway and helped defeat the measure a year ago, believes she has the votes to stop it in the Senate if the bill comes to the floor.
She has been helped of late by the release of a federal report that says there is no industry standard when it comes to assuming liability for accidents, as the railroad and DOT have claimed. CSX has said the deal won't go through without a liability agreement, even though the head of the U.S. House Transportation Committee called signing such agreements an "unacceptable practice."
Moreover, Congresswoman Kathy Castor of Tampa and allies in Congress would like to develop federal policy that sets a national liability standard.
The Florida Legislature shouldn't be jumping the gun.
If this were simply a purchase of track for a commuter line, few people would have a problem. But it is about more than rail. The line runs from Deland through Orlando to Poinciana. It would serve commuters better than tourists, because transit links will be required to get to Orlando International Airport, the University of Central Florida and the area's popular theme parks.
It would take some traffic off Interstate 4, but in nowhere near the numbers originally projected.
It would, however, give developers the chance to build near stations along the way. And in the meantime, CSX would get Florida to upgrade CSX-owned track in the center of the state to the tune of $300 million.
The idea of spending hundreds of millions to benefit a for-profit railroad when the state faces a budget deficit that means budget cuts for education and social programs is outrageous.
Moreover, CSX officials told the Dade City Commission last month that regardless of what happens with SunRail, they will build the hub and add trains to the north-south freight line that runs through the spine of the state. So why should we pay for it?
Finally, the threat that Florida will lose federal money if commuter rail for Orlando doesn't happen is flimsy. As Mayor Pam Iorio has said, if she proposes a light rail project for Tampa that has a dedicated funding source, there is no reason to think the federal government won't participate in a worthwhile project.
Rail, both passenger and freight, is important to the future of Florida. But a bad deal is a bad deal. This one, as configured, should die.
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